this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

As soon as I finished reading this I thought: I want to read it again. Not an altogether unusual thing for me to come to the end of a book then immediately re-read the first chapter to enter it slightly differently, with slightly more knowing so that I can experience deeper layers. Of course there are MANY occasions when that thought doesn’t come up, books I simply close and say, okay, that was that, and move on to the next. But good literature should never be read just once.

Although I would love to move on to the next book… I have a stack tottering in more than one room… but Sylvie is one of those that niggles, come back, she/it says, there’s another layer, and another.

And so I do.

Because, a) getting to know Sylvie is quite good fun and, b) because If Sylvie had Nine Lives is written in a way that makes it impossible to not want to hold up at various angles and see how things fit, what’s the same, what’s different. There is such pleasure in this literary puzzle and the writing is a joy. Here’s a sample. It comes from the chapter/story called ‘How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” and rather beautifully punctuates an uncomfortable moment that has just passed:

“Sylvie came out of her bedroom and tinkled Cheerios into a bowl, a sound to rinse the air.”

See what I mean?

In a nutshell, the book is the stories of Sylvie, a woman we meet at 19 and then see different possibilities of every five years until age 49. The same person but from nine different life choices. The ultimate unreliable narrator except that every story actually happened, or it would have if she’d chosen an alternate route in the story before.

It opens with Sylvie about to be married to Jack. It’s 1974 when bridal cars are decorated with homemade plastic flowers in the colour of bridesmaids dresses and bridal showers include pie plate hats for the bride-to-be while grooms-to-be get wasted at bars and have to be carried home. Which (in my opinion) works out dandily for Sylvie. I’ll say no more.

The next story/chapter, she’s five years older having made entirely different choices five years earlier that lead to a different present life… and so on as we move through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s to 2014. The attention to details in each decade so beautifully done, “… the unfurnished living room, evening sunlight filtering through the philodendrons and spider plants on the widow sill.” (do people even still have philodendrons?)… all of it tightly woven through the story, not an ounce of what feels forced; everything ‘belongs’. Each new story is another version of “let’s pretend”… let’s pretend there was no Jack or they didn’t get married or they did but he died or he didn’t (and she has guilt about that or doesn’t) or there’s a different cast of characters entirely or different jobs and maybe there were children or how about there are no children, all of it, whole futures, her futures and others, turning on a moment’s decision. Because that’s exactly how life works, turning and changing based on this choice and the next. We are where we are not necessarily because of what happened but because of what we chose to do about what happened.

So yes. I am re-reading this novel-in-stories with immense pleasure; I’ll begin at the beginning but then read out of order. I love that there is no wrong way to do this (in life and in the book), so many ways to imagine the future, so many fabulous ways to get there.

In the case of Sylvie’s lives, all of them a trip worth taking. Twice.

13 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

  1. Well if you feel that way about it AND if Kerry also has such positive things to say about it … I’m adding up both to equal a must-read for me to secure.

    1. Oh good! On the subject of lists… how do you keep yours? I have no actual system I realize. My best is to immediately look a title up at the library and put a copy on hold or put it on my (library) For Later list and once read, if I love it, I’ll order from my local bookshop. OR if not available at the library I may go directly to Order From Local Bookshop, or publisher, or author, depending.

      1. Unfortunately, my “list” is a motley bunch of notes spread around my office that I usually either can’t find or forget to stick in my pocket when we go to town. Other than that my system is pretty similar to yours.

        1. Exactly. Motley bunches of notes. I’m so glad I’m not the only one. I used to have a notebook but then I never consulted it or would never have it when I was in a bookshop so, as ever, my buying habits would be led by impulse and what spoke to me. The best way, really, but… the last has its value too. The library/purchase after reading does system work well I must say.

  2. Thank you so much for this not-a-review! Lists, hmmmm: one on my phone, several scraps near the TV, four on my computer, one of which is printed out and much scrawled-upon, pinned to my bulletin board. Also, a journal with separate pages for fiction, nonfiction, music, movies, tv. I often forget the journal exists.

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