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If, Then

Review

If, Then

From debut author Kate Hope Day comes IF, THEN, a propulsive, character-driven story of possibilities and reality, and the glittering mysteries between the two.

Settled near an inactive volcano, the sleepy town of Clearing, Oregon, knows a thing or two about survival. In IF, THEN, we meet four individuals from this quiet town: Ginny, an ambitious and hard-working surgeon; her husband, Mark, a scientist; Samara, a young woman still grieving the recent death of her mother; and Cass, a scholar and new mother. Each is grappling with some major life change, be it marriage, loss or parenthood, but when they start to have bizarre visions, the realities intertwine in surprising and dangerous ways.

IF, THEN begins when Ginny is preparing to join her husband in bed. After feeling a mild rumble in the earth, she blinks and suddenly sees a female coworker, Edith, in Mark’s place. Even more surprising, she feels a heated and passionate sense of desire in her chest. While trying to go about her day normally, she cannot help but feel affected by her vision, and soon is catching herself waiting for Edith after rounds and trying to find her alone.

Not long after Ginny’s strange vision, Mark, feeling overwhelmed by the strain of their often one-sided marriage, is giving a speech about ecology when he, too, feels a familiar rumble. He has been tracking animal behavior to try to predict the next volcanic eruption, but spies something terrifying on one of his cameras: himself --- dirty, bearded and wearing tattered clothing. Is this version of Mark from the future, perhaps reeling from a volcanic eruption? He races to his research camp only to run into his double face to face. Though the other Mark does not seem to register him, Mark feels certain that his world is on the verge of collapse.

"...a masterpiece of a character-driven book. I read it eagerly and unflinchingly, and it epitomized for me of all the best parts of strong, well-developed characters."

At the same time, we meet young Samara, whose mother, a real-estate agent, passed away following a battle with cancer. Unfortunately for our characters, her doctor was Ginny, and Samara feels a lot of resentment towards her neighbor. This is why it is so strange when she looks out of her parents’ window and sees her own mother smiling and hammering in a “for sale” sign. Desperate to reunite with her mother and learn long-kept secrets, Samara sets about trying to maintain everything her mother has ever touched, even as her father begs her to move on.

Last of all, we have Cass. For years, Cass was a passionate scholar of philosophy, but now she is just a new mother. She adores her child, Leah, but feels drained and unmoored by the loss of her academic life. She also has severed ties with her beloved mentor, and though she loves her child, it is easy to pick up on her hidden resentments for her lot in life. Just as Cass begins to adjust to motherhood, she feels the same rumble and turns a corner to see a vision of herself pregnant again. Desperate for fulfillment, she seeks to make amends with her mentor and begin her work on counterfactuals --- “if, thens” that hopefully will prove to be the theory of everything.

To say much more about the plot would be a huge disservice to Day, who has seamlessly interwoven plots and character arcs even when the details are slippery and seemingly malleable. Her characters all live in the same world, yet a careful reader will soon realize that they are not, in fact, seeing the same versions of one another that exist to themselves. Ginny and Mark know Cass as a pregnant woman, and Cass often seems to be catching the “other” Mark in various glimpses. Day toys with reality in a fresh and original way, and she is always careful to make sure that each storyline follows a clear order, even when they cannot all align in a familiar way.

IF, THEN is a masterpiece of a character-driven book. I read it eagerly and unflinchingly, and it epitomized for me all the best parts of strong, well-developed characters. I loved each of Day’s characters equally --- from queer Ginny to paranoid Mark and grieving Samara to brilliant Cass --- and yet I never felt as though I had to race through one chapter to get to the next to see where a previous character was in his or her journey. They are each so fully realized and wonderfully fleshed out that it felt a bit like playing with a dollhouse, with each doll firmly in your line of sight.

Another place Day shines is her setting. The home of a volcano --- active or not --- provides the perfect backdrop to her characters and adds some necessary drama to their often ordinary lives. As their visions begin to overlap, you must ask yourself what the volcano has to do with it --- after all, each vision is accompanied by the same rumbling and metallic taste. Science lovers will enjoy the references to ecology, science, philosophy and even medicine, and all readers will love the way that Day employs these “left-brained” themes in compelling and understandable ways.

So is Mark correct, and is Clearing (what a wonderful name for a town so lost in uncertainties!) really on the verge of an apocalypse? Or is there a more dreamlike explanation for their visions? If you read IF, THEN, then you will find out, but I can assure you that every bit of the journey to the truth will be worth your while. Day is a remarkable and careful writer, and I cannot wait for scores of readers to find this book in whichever reality they inhabit.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 22, 2019

If, Then
by Kate Hope Day

  • Publication Date: March 12, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0525511229
  • ISBN-13: 9780525511229