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If, Then by Kate Hope Day

Published by Random House on March 12, 2019

If, Then is populated by an ensemble cast of people who want to change their lives. The title suggests possibilities: if this happens, then that will happen. Bu it also suggests the counterfactual: if this had not happened, then other things might have happened instead of the things that did happen. If Cass had not forgotten her birth control pills on a camping weekend, then she would be finishing her dissertation instead of changing diapers. Our lives are filled with might be and what might have been, as the residents of a neighborhood discover.

Dr. Ginny McDonnell is married to Mark, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife. They have a young son named Noah. Ginny might be losing interest in Mark, or she might be gaining an interest in a female co-worker. Her confusion does not stop her from exploring the possibility of a physical relationship with another woman. Might that be what she needs, instead of (or in addition to) Mark?

Mark is a researcher who believes frog behavior can predict volcanic eruptions. Research for his funding is likely to be discontinued. He has been behaving strangely since he thought he saw himself, but older, in the woods (perhaps the self he might become?). Mark has taken it into his head to build a bunker, something like a fallout shelter, to protect his family from harm, including an unlikely volcanic eruption. Unsurprisingly, he causes harm in his desire to prevent it.

Samara has moved from Seattle to take up temporary residence in Ginny’s neighborhood. She has been helping with her mother’s real estate business since her mother died on Ginny’s operating table. Samara blames Ginny for the death, unfairly in the view of Samara’s father, who surprises Samara with news about his plans that his mother made and that he intends to execute. Her father’s plan leaves Samara with a choice about her future.

One of Samara’s listings is the home of Robby Kells, on whom Ginny performs life-saving surgery after he drank himself into a coma. Cass is the new neighbor of Ginny and Samara. She’s caring for a newborn while her husband Amar is on a research trip. Cass is writing a dissertation on counterfactual (if, then) statements. Kells is an authority on counterfactuals and served as Cass’ advisor before he ended up in the hospital. Kells thought Cass had the potential to be a gifted philosopher. Can she get that back? Cass believes her skill at abstract thinking vanished with childbirth, replaced by the endless distractions of breastfeeding, diapers, and baby monitors.

So where’s the plot in all this? Some of the story borders on the supernatural. Mark sees himself more than once. Samsara thinks she sees her mother in the front yard, but younger and not dead. And then there’s the mystery of the house that Samsara’s mother purchased without telling Samsara.

Most of the plot, however, consists of related domestic drama. The story is about connections: what we know and don’t know about our neighbors and family members. And obviously, the story is about choices, options pursued and options foregone. The story challenges the reader to look at life as a series of choices: If I do this, then I can’t do that, but maybe I can do that later. We cannot plan everything that will happen in our lives because life is too complex, too full of variables we cannot anticipate. Feelings change. People die. Shit happens. All we can know with certainty is that the future is uncertain. Possibilities, which perhaps can only be understood through counterfactuals, are infinite. Maybe they all exist in an unseen multiverse, but the possibilities that matter are those that we experience, possibilities that become fact.

While some aspects of the story are interesting, others are puzzling. Is Mark’s obsession with shelter construction evidence of precognition? Unexplained ghosts/duplicate people/time shifts appear throughout the story for no reason that I could discern. The most plausible theory, a cross-over of our perceived universe with some part of the multiverse that we don’t usually perceive, is too contrived to be convincing. Even some parts of the story that correspond to reality struck me as problematic. Are we supposed to agree with Ginny when she suspects she made a mistake by pursuing a career as a surgeon instead of staying home with her kid? Are we supposed to think that fathers should not play a primary parenting role because Mark is reckless and unbalanced? People must make choices in their lives but so must authors, and I didn't understand some of the choices that Kate Hope Day made.

It is difficult to care about the characters, except for Kells, who makes only brief appearances. The characters are largely whiny and self-absorbed. While that might be an accurate portrayal of most people, Day gave me too little reason to want to read about them.

Still, the novel held my interest, even if building a novel around the counterfactual is more interesting in concept than in execution. Day is a capable prose stylist. I didn’t dislike If, Then, but I didn’t like it well enough to give it an unqualified recommendation.


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