Quinn Braverman gave up her life in the big city with her high-energy, neurotic boyfiend Eugene for life in the suburbs with a loving son, Isaac, a stable but undemonstrative husband Lewis and a Volvo. The Volvo is a nice touch, for it symbolizes what Quinn believes she has—a rock solid middle class life with no spark in it. Quinn has “issues.” In fact, all of the characters in Ellen Meister’s poignant, yet somewhat flat, “The Other Life” have issues.
Quinn’s artistic mother, who suffered from depression, escaped her lot in life through suicide. As Quinn tries to come to grips with a difficult pregnancy, the loss of her mother and whether or not her own life is worth living in its present form, she has an escape hatch that’s better than death but ultimately just as absolute.
Quinn has always known that another Quinn lives another life in an alternative universe. She is aware of portals between the here and now and that look-alike place. In the other life, she’s still with Eugene, isn’t carrying a daughter who might never have a life at all, and isn’t driving a Volvo with all that entails. Seeking answers, if not escape, she finally steps through the portal in her basement. She likes what she sees. She feels guilty for liking it. It pulls at her like a dark undertow on a sunny beach. Yet, if she likes it too much and chooses to stay there, then Isaac and Lewis will be lost to her. Early on, she understands that she will not be able to step back and forth between these lives forever.
“The Other Life,” isn’t science fiction; yet some readers might appreciate additional clarity about Quinn’s universe next door. While Quinn acknowledges that the other life contains another version of herself, she never meets this self, nor does she become that other self and suddenly have all of the continuity and knowledge that would bring her. One gets the impression that the universe next door exists in stasis until Quinn appears.
More importantly within the scope of the novel, however, is the reality with which Meister presents the typical, and often difficult, challenges a woman faces in marriage, balancing the needs of a husband and a child with her own creaturehood, the losses of parents, and the prospects of a heartbreaking future with a daughter who may be born retarded. There’s an honesty here that we don’t often see in fiction, the concept that a woman can be happily married while wondering if that marriage is really the choice she should have made.
Quinn, as all real and fictional characters, must make painful decisions. Meister’s inventive next-door universe gives Quinn a unique option even though more magic, spark and facts about how that other life works would have strengthened the novel. While Quinn herself comes across as self-centered and a bit hard for anyone, including a mother, to love, her choice is no less difficult. Her thought processes as she makes her choices about the road not yet taken are the story’s greatest strength.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “The Sun Singer,” a mountain adventure about a young man who steps through a portal into an alternative universe.