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.