If, Then by Kate Hope Day
Published by Random House
Publication date: March 12, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction
It feels a bit as if alternate realities are all the rage in fiction this year, which is not too surprising if you pay attention to what’s happening in the real world. First, there was The Dreamers, where people fell asleep and dreamed of different lives. Dreams so vivid that upon awaking they believed their dreams were real. Kate Hope Day takes things further in her debut novel If, Then. Set in a small Oregon town that lies near a dormant volcano (having lived in Oregon I can tell you this is not fiction—there are four in the state) the novel narrows its focus on several characters who all live in the same neighborhood and are experiencing moments when their life momentarily slides sideways revealing a completely different life.
Cass is a new mother who was well on the way to getting her PhD. Now, her brain doesn’t function beyond her newborn daughter’s needs. Her husband is away and what feels at first like sleep-deprivation induced hallucinations become more pronounced. Does she have a daughter? Or has her thesis propelled her into acclaim? Her neighbors Ginny and Mark are struggling to balance career and family. She’s a surgeon and he’s a wildlife scientist—meaning he often has to pick up the slack with their son. It’s worked for them, but now Mark’s research is accelerating. He’s studying the predictive nature of animal behavior before a natural disaster and how this could be harnessed to save lives. He’s passionate about his work, but the scientific aspects of his mind are giving way to paranoia, as he begins seeing himself after a catastrophic event. For Ginny, it’s much more personal as she is thrown into scenes where her personal life is utterly different than the one she has now.
By choosing her location so carefully, Day plays into the unpredictable aspects of both humans and nature. Each character experiences the same thing before their reality changes—a metallic taste in the mouth. This is accompanied by feeling that the ground is shaking, but that could very well be accurate because Broken Mountain has trembled for years. What it does, though is create an unsteady feeling throughout the novel. Is it an imminent volcanic eruption or are these people shaking as their reality shifts?
Playing with time and human nature is no easy task. Day is up to it, but there are points in If, Then when I’m not sure I’m seeing an alternate reality or just wishful thinking. This is mostly the case with Ginny—her ‘visions’ feel more like daydreaming about a different life. This quibble aside, Day does well in giving If, Then the disquieting, even disorienting, feeling of realities colliding and how even the smallest of choices can change how a life goes.