What if …?
It’s a question so many of us ponder about various aspects of our lives. What if I’d gone to a different university? What if I’d taken that other job? What if I’d stuck with that other lover? Where would I be now? How might my life have been different?
Londoner Jemma Forte ponders this question—and the possibility of alternate realities—in her novel If You’re Not the One, published in the United States this month in paperback by Naperville-based Sourcebooks.
If You’re Not the One follows several alternate-reality paths of one Jennifer Wright, a not-quite-forty mother of two who gave up a promising career to raise her daughters after marrying a man she met at a party, to which she had gone with a boyfriend she eventually threw over. Several years into her marriage to Max, the guy from the party, Jen finds herself existing (barely) in a stale, virtually sexless marriage, working a part-time job she doesn’t love, and raising two energetic, demanding young girls—the kind of routine suburban existence she never expected for herself.
A string of accidents sends Jen and her daughter to the hospital emergency room within a few days of each other, the daughter with a broken arm and Jen in a much more serious condition: a coma that lasts several weeks. While trapped in this coma and unresponsive to the outside world, Jen realizes that her subconscious is actually more than responsive and is, in fact, providing her with an usual gift: the ability to see what life would have been like had she chosen a different path for herself.
While comatose, Jen’s mind explores several alternate realities, examining relationships she’d had with other men during her life and what would have happened had she stuck with those men. Each of the men is wildly different from one another: one a cold, successful tech entrepreneur; one a charismatic, drug-dealing rogue; one a supremely kind momma’s boy.
This exploration of Jen’s what-might-have-been paths doesn’t come from nowhere. Unhappy in her marriage and wondering “what if …?” Jen’s subconscious takes over during her coma to explore the questions and issues that, awake, she avoided, questions that would have been painful to confront, with answers that might have forced some serious decision-making.
If You’re Not the One addresses some pretty heavy questions with a light, humorous touch, providing a perfectly balanced look at love and marriage and how relationships change over time. Forte tackles love, sex, and infidelity as well as friendship and parenthood. The book also looks at how we balance our personal and professional lives and how choosing motherhood affects women and their careers.
This romantic dramedy could easily have veered into kitsch or melodrama, but Forte keeps it light and funny while exploring the kind of real-world issues that many readers will find it easy to identify with. Putting the lead character into a coma could well have slipped into soap opera-territory—and some readers might well find the tack a little too gimmicky—but the notion of having lucid, productive visions of one’s alternate realities is irresistible (think It’s a Wonderful Life or Sliding Doors). Forte makes the most of the shtick she’s chosen to employ, carefully guiding the readers through time, into Jen’s past, back into her present, and into the possible futures she might have lived through had she made different choices in her life.
Whether this ability to see her alternate realities is a positive or a negative for Jen remains a question, and the book concludes on a question mark. There are no easy answers here. This, too, is to Forte’s credit: a perky, facile ending would have rendered the book too fluffy. Instead, If You’re Not the One leaves things a little messy—just like real life.
Filled with likable characters, If You’re Not the One is lively and engaging without becoming too heavy or dramatic. Readers on this side of the pond could likely do without some of the Britishisms (the book has not been Americanized), although this probably won’t bother fans of Bridget Jones or even Jane Austen. In addition, some readers might find this book too light, casting it aside as breezy chick lit. But there is something more here for those who choose to look a little deeper, and those who do will find that this charming book is as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking.
June 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark
$14.99, paperback, 408 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen