Book Review: Then and Always by Dani Atkins
Before I launch into my review of Then and Always, I need to make a small disclaimer: I am not usually a sobber. I don’t get weepy. I’m a pretty hard-eyed cynic, as a matter of fact. So why was I a drippy mess — in my workplace, no less — after reading this book? Read on…
In Then and Always, we meet 23-year-old Rachel Wiltshire, whose life has been filled with loss and grief since the freak accident that took the life of her best friend Jimmy five years earlier. But when Rachel returns to her hometown for a friend’s wedding and passes out suddenly, she wakes to a very different sort of life.
Suddenly, Rachel’s life is not the one she knows. She wakes up in the hospital to see her concerned friends huddled nearby… including a very much alive Jimmy. Not only that, her scars are gone, she’s engaged to her gorgeous boyfriend from high school, and she has the job she’s always wanted working as a magazine writer. The problem is, Rachel doesn’t remember any of the events from the past five years, and she’s convinced that she had some other life.
Does she have amnesia? Is she mentally ill? How can what she remembers be real, when everyone around her insists she’s been here with them in this “new” life all along? And really, why would she even want to go back, when the new version of her life is so much better?
It’s an intriguing set-up, and for the most part, it’s quite absorbing. The fast-paced narrative moves us forward through Rachel’s first days in her new life and allows us to experience the confusion of a world that’s familiar yet completely foreign right alongside Rachel. Her joy at finding Jimmy by her side is lovely, and it’s understandable that she’d feel hesitant toward her loving fiancé Matt, since she doesn’t remember their relationship or even the fact of their engagement.
We’re left to wonder along with Rachel just what’s going on. She did suffer a head trauma, so the amnesia theory is pretty persuasive. At one point, Rachel floats the idea of parallel worlds to Jimmy — and he simply laughs at her. This is not, after all, a science fiction novel, and as Jimmy makes clear, there will be no mysterious wormholes behind these strange events, but rather, a real-world answer that may (or may not) explain Rachel’s confusion.
Still, there are some stray clues that seem to contradict the amnesia theory. Rachel catches fleeting smells that are out of place and hears sounds that aren’t really there. A breakdown of some sort, perhaps? The author introduces these small moments as no more than hints, but ultimately, they are worth paying attention to.
Within the last chapter or so of the book, I found myself getting angry when it seemed that no real answer was in sight. Rachel’s dilemmas in terms of her life path were coming to a resolution, but no explanation of her split worlds had been provided. Just as I was getting to ready to rant about the weak finish… it all made sense. Ultimately, there’s an ending that’s fitting and powerful — and while I can’t say it made me happy (see above re: tears), it worked.
Had I not glanced back at the book description online and seen it listed as “women’s fiction” (whatever that means…), I might have gone off in a few wild directions with my speculations and suppositions. Sinister conspiracy theories, quantum physics, maybe a TARDIS? In the end, Then and Always sticks to a set-up and conclusion that work within their context — and so while I always love a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse or a good gaslighting, this is not that kind of book.
The book blurb for Then and Always reads:
For fans of One Day, What Alice Forgot, and the hit film Sliding Doors, comes an absorbing and surprising debut novel about a young woman who, after an accident, gets a second chance at life . . . just not in one she remembers.
Take that with a grain of salt, and you’ll do fine. I think I went into reading this book with slightly warped expectations because of the blurb — but once I got into the flow of the book, I left my expectations behind and just enjoyed the story. There’s just enough romance, some sweet moments focused on family, and the kind of friendships that last from childhood into adulthood. Nicely written, sentimental without being mawkish, Then and Always is sure to please readers who enjoy a story that has happy moments but still manages to wring the tears out of you by the end.
As for me, the hard-eyed cynic: I finished reading Then and Always while sitting in my office with a cup of coffee, enjoying a momentary lull. Big mistake. That ending! It snuck up on me and smacked me over the head. There may have been a bit of blubbering going on… So word to the wise: Maybe read Then and Always in the privacy of your own home, where you won’t have to explain away your tear-streaked face and puffy eyes.
Title: Then and Always
Author: Dani Atkins
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: May 20, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Ballantine Books via NetGalley