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If, Then by Kate Hope Day3.5 stars
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I suppose nearly everybody has wished at least once that they could go back to some major decision point in their past and do everything over, just to imagine the unlived life that might have resulted. I mean, we all want to get the good ending in this game we’re playing, don’t we? “If only I hadn’t done this ten years ago, then maybe I could’ve had that!” And so on. I think you could argue that this universal fantasy shores up the popularity of stories about multiverses and alternate timelines.

In her slipstream debut novel If, Then, former HBO producer Kate Hope Day examines the lives of four cul-de-sac neighbors. The fictive town of Clearing, Oregon, is located under the shadow of the dormant volcanic peak Broken Mountain; a stand-in, I suppose, for the real-life Broken Top. Through the course of a story that reads like a patchwork of often painfully real moments of all-American ennui, these characters will have encounters with their other selves from other realities, while the mountain rumbles threateningly all around them.

Mark McDonnell is a scientist, a behavioral ecologist, frustrated and humiliated that his research, devoted to studying the predictive relationship between animal behavior and impending seismic events, isn’t taken seriously enough by his colleagues to help him secure grant money. His wife, Ginny, is a surgeon, whose job has lately become so demanding that she’s feeling estranged from Mark and their son Noah. Cass Stuart is a young mother who put a promising Ph.D track in philosophy on the back burner to raise her baby, to the deep disappointment of the professor who regarded her not only as a star pupil but as heir apparent to his scholarly legacy. And Samara Mehta is a bereaved young realtor who blames Ginny, who was acting surgeon at the time, for the death of her mother on the operating table.

Mark is convinced that Broken Mountain isn’t quite so dormant, and poses a more immediate seismic threat to the area than the Cascadia subduction zone. But a new series of tremors brings an unexpected side effect. Ginny sees visions of herself partnered up with Edith, a scrub nurse at her hospital. Mark encounters his double deep in the woods near some ponds where he’s been tracking the behavior of local frog populations. Other Mark looks scruffy and bedraggled as if he’s been living in the wild for months. Cass sees her own still-pregnant doppelgänger, and Samara catches a fleeting glimpse of her late mother in the yard of a house she is showing.

These visions, which feel less like visions than realtime glimpses into a parallel reality, propel our characters towards discovery and change. Samara learns that her parents had done a number of things she’d never been aware of in preparation for their senior years. Cass rededicates herself to completing her dissertation, following up on her professor’s acclaimed work towards developing a Theory of Everything. Ginny decides to pursue Edith for real and Mark — in a sequence of events that reminded me of Take Shelter, a recent movie with Michael Shannon — goes completely extra and installs an underground shelter in his back yard. In part, he has a genuine fear of an impending natural disaster, but mostly what he gets out of assembling the shelter with his son Noah is a sense of recommitment to his duties as a father, a feeling that he is doing all he can to pull his family together the more he feels Ginny slipping away.

If, Then is, as you might have guessed by now, a series of character studies, focusing on those turning-point moments in our lives when we realize we’ve got to change the things we need to change, and learn to accept what we can’t. Kate Hope Day has a keen eye for character development, and many moments — such as Cass’s struggles with the day-to-day realities of new motherhood, or a very poignant scene where Samara rummages through a local thrift shop trying to reclaim some of her mom’s old stuff — are deeply heartfelt. By speculative fiction standards, don’t expect a disaster story, with the kind of suspenseful plot-driven narrative that goes into one. Day is good at evoking moments of menacing dread, particularly in a scene where Mark and Noah pay a visit to the remote country home of a full-blown doomsday prepper. But this is mostly a story about the tricky seismology of human hearts and minds. And where our internal landscapes are concerned, there’s only so much you can do to prepare when the ground starts shaking.