Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Book Review: Parallel

I checked out Lauren Miller's debut novel, Parallel, from my library last week.  I read it--devoured it--in less than two days and have not been able to stop thinking about it since.  It reminded me vaguely of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, in that it was a story of a girl with a chance at a do-over to get her life right.  Thankfully, I was very pleased with the end of Parallel, whereas Before I Fall was doomed to a sad ending before it started (since Sam was dead by the first page....).  Anyway, I digress.  This is really going to be one of those reviews where I tell you up front that you need to stop reading the review and and just go check out the book.  It's that good.

But for those of you who choose to stick around for the review, I will try to do it justice.

The novel opens on the night before Abby Barnes's 18th birthday.  She is NOT where she always thought she'd be.  According to her carefully crafted Plan for her life, she figured she'd be attending Northwestern University, enrolled in the journalism program.  But a scheduling snafu in her senior year of high school landed her in a drama class. . . . which led to her unexpectedly landing the lead in her school play. . . . which led to a talent scout "discovering" her. . . . which led to her being cast as a minor role in a movie (which she only agreed to do to enhance her Northwestern application). . . . which led to her spending the night before her 18th birthday at an elite restaurant in LA with the star-studded cast of her movie.

The second chapter of the novel is a flashback to Abby's 17th birthday.  Interestingly, it does NOT go as Abby remembered it in the first chapter.  She awakens... to an earthquake.  In Atlanta.  And is consequently late for school.  And because she is late for school, that aforementioned scheduling snafu becomes a little more complicated, and she ends up in astronomy class instead of drama.  In astronomy, she meets two very important people.  First, her professor, Dr. Mann: a Nobel Prize winner with a theory about parallel universes.  Secondly, a very cute boy, Josh: a new student who loves astronomy and rows for the crew team.

In the third chapter, Abby awakens on the morning of her 18th birthday.  But she's not in LA anymore.  Somehow, her entire life has changed overnight.  She's in a dorm room at Yale.  And she has no idea how she got there.  She has all the memories of the last year of her own life--the one that landed her in LA.  But as she reaches back, she has two alternate memories of that day a year before: her 17th birthday.  One day on which she took drama, which launched her on the path to LA.  And one day on which she took astronomy, which apparently launched her on the path to Yale--but how?  And how is this possible?

With the help of her science-savvy best friend Caitlin, as well as several scientific consultations with Dr. Mann, Abby comes to understand that she is living in a parallel universe.  And every time her parallel (the 17-year-old Abby) makes a decision, her own reality shifts again.

This book was beautifully, beautifully done.  This wasn't the first time that the idea of parallel dimensions has been touched (think "Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998), but in my opinion, it's the best.  I loved how Abby's reality shifted every time her parallel made a choice--so she had multiple reality shifts to deal with instead of just one.  But what I especially loved was largely summed up in this statement from Dr. Mann:

"That's the beauty of it.  There is no way to know how her choices will manifest in your life until she has already made them.  A decision that appears 'life-altering' might ultimately not be.  Often it is the choices that seem inconsequential that uproot us." (page 90)

Following on this sentiment, all of the choices that chance the trajectory of Abby's life seem like very small things at the time: an inconsequential elective to plug in to an otherwise academically perfect schedule; a silly way to spend a few more minutes with a boy she likes; a slight fib told told to a friend with the greater good in mind.  For a senior in high school, none of these seem like game-changers.  Abby's worried about picking a college.  But in fact, circumstances seem to pick the college for her; it's the small things that determine the outcome of her life far more.

Looking back on my own life, I thought this was a fascinating concept.  How often have I been worried about what I thought were "the big things"--picking the right college, or the right job, or making the right "big decision," when in fact it was the the small things that were steering my direction far more?  Where might I have ended up if it hadn't been for that chance conversation, or one decision that set me on a new path?  Reading Parallel started me contemplating all kinds of interesting questions along these lines.

The other thing that I just loved about Abby as a character was the way she grew as a character and developed a strong sense of self.  She draws a very strong line between herself and her parallel, and she eventually decides, "No, this isn't the life I would haven't chosen--it's the life my parallel chose."  And then she makes the hard choices to go about changing her life to make it what she wants.  I think that pretty much everyone hits a point in their lives where they look around and think, "You know, this is not what I wanted" about something or other in their lives--although most of us do not have parallels to blame for our predicaments.  :)  The question is whether we, like Abby, are willing to do the hard work of turning our lives upside down to get back to the people that we are supposed to be.

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