Are our lives determined by fate? Or is it all just a matter of chance?
Is there just one person in all the world that we’re meant to be with? Or is life more of a multiple-choice quiz, where different answers may be correct in different circumstances?
In Maybe in Another Life, the characters say one thing, but their lives and actions give a very different message.
Hannah Martin, age 29, has lived anywhere and everywhere, but has no idea where she truly belongs. After a go-nowhere disastrous affair in New York ends, Hannah moves back “home” to Los Angeles, to reunite with her best friend Gabby, pick up the pieces, and start from scratch.
And maybe, just maybe, rekindle an old flame with her high school sweetheart Ethan.
On their first night out on the town, Hannah faces a moment of truth: Should she go home with Ethan and see what happens… or call it a night, head back to Gabby’s place, and spend the night alone? At the moment of decision, the narrative of Maybe in Another Life splits.
From this moment on, we follow two separate narrative threads in alternating chapters. In one, Hannah does go home with Ethan, their dormant feelings are rekindled, and they begin to work through what an adult relationship might look like. In the other, Hannah turns Ethan down, continues on the way home with Gabby, and is struck by a hit-and-run driver, resulting in serious injuries and a lengthy hospital stay.
In both versions of Hannah’s life, she’s confronted with choices. What does her future hold? How do you know if you’re meant to be with someone? How do you recognize a soulmate? What do you give up for a relationship, and what are the deal-breakers?
Likewise, in both versions, Hannah tries to puzzle out the question of destiny and predetermination:
“You think things are meant to be?” I ask her. For some reason, I think I’ll feel better if things are meant to be. It gets me off the hook, doesn’t it? If things are meant to be, it means I don’t have to worry so much about consequences and mistakes. I can take my hands off the wheel. Believing in fate is like living on cruise control.
Hannah has been so busy searching for the perfect life and what she’s “meant” to do, who she’s “meant” to love, that she’s never fully engaged with her options anywhere she’s been.
“Doesn’t it scare you?” I ask her. “To think that you might have gone in the wrong direction? And missed the life you were destined for?”
Hannah’s life is so messy that she has to believe there are other forces at play:
“I mean, I think I have to believe that life will work out the way it needs to. If everything that happens in the world is just a result of chance and there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, that’s just too chaotic for me to handle. I’d have to go around questioning every decision I’ve ever made, every decision I will ever make. If our fate is determined with every step we take… it’s too exhausting. I’d prefer to believe that things happen as they are meant to happen.
Ironically, the split narrative demonstrated that it is all random, and that every decision changes the course of events. Towards the end of the book, a party guest talks about the multiverse theory, in which every decision leads to multiple universes in which all possible outcomes exist. From the moment Hannah decides to go home with Ethan — or not to go home with Ethan — she has two different parallel lives. In both lives, she confronts pain and difficult choices, finds a soulmate, faces hard truths, and finally sets off on the path toward professional fulfillment as well as a life filled with love.
The lovely thing about Maybe in Another Life is that both halves of the story feel right! Neither of Hannah’s two lives is 100% easy, but both feel real and both seem like valid outcomes. In both, Hannah begins to grow, take chances, and own up to the decisions she’s made that lead her to this point. Both feel like the absolutely right thing for her, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
I really enjoyed the writing in Maybe in Another Life, which maintains a light touch even in heavy situations. Hannah herself is a person with a lot of room to grow, but she’s self-knowing enough to own up to her mistakes and want to make better choices. And through it all, she’s got a great sense of humor, is a devoted friend, and knows that she needs to finally do something with her life.
The author gives Hannah certain quirks and habits that are both charming and make her feel like an individual, rather than a stock character. In particular, Hannah’s need to always have her hair in a high bun and her constant craving for cinnamon rolls are recurring motifs, and to my surprise, the repetition is actually pretty charming (rather than annoying, as it so easily could have been).
I liked the double narrative, although occasionally I lost track of which event happened in which version of Hannah’s life. No matter, though: Both halves of the story contain ups and downs, loves lost and found, and the true and deep friendship between Hannah and Gabby, which is a key element of the entire story. It’s not often that contemporary novels emphasize the huge difference a good friendship between women can make, while also dealing with romantic entanglements and all sorts of other drama. But here, it’s crystal clear that the bond between Hannah and Gabby is the most important element for both women, grounding them in such a way that they’re able to make their life decisions from a position of strength and support.
Maybe in Another Life is a very quick read. It’s light, but heartfelt. Not sugary, not glossing over the hard stuff, Maybe in Another Life shows a young woman dealing with real life… and the way every decision has consequences. This book is quite fun to read, and yet manages to be emotionally real even amidst all the jokes about cinnamon rolls.
Title: Maybe in Another Life
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: July 7, 2015
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley