In Kate Hope Day’s debut novel, If/Then, four neighbors in an Oregon town situated near an inactive volcano each experience visions. These visions are alternate versions of their own lives, but because they’re set in their own homes and they appear so real, most characters don’t recognize themselves until they look closely. In one, a woman sees herself romantically involved with a woman from her work, instead of with her husband. In her husbands visions? He is a wild, unkempt scientist who is respected but living nearly off-the-grid. When each vision ends, the characters return to their original version of the world, wondering about what they saw.
Using an ensemble cast of characters and episodic structure, If/Then has the narrative propulsion of a television show, which makes sense because Kate Hope Day is a producer at HBO. In fact, it’s hard to read this book and think of anything but TV. The story is compact and experimental, like the recent Netflix show “Russian Doll,” and playful in its approach to character, like “The Good Place.” It features talented, intelligent and (one could imagine) good-looking characters with personal problems, like “Grey’s Anatomy” — the comparisons could go on and on. If/Then feels fresh for the genre.
Day’s characters are thinly drawn, but her choice to showcase them across multiple realities ultimately fills each one out without sacrificing pace. And, again, this is a book that moves at a steady clip.
These characters live in elite, ambitious worlds. Ginny is a talented surgeon who starts the story off already burned out. Cass is a philosophy PhD working hard on her next book while caring for a newborn infant. Mark is a biologist who is so good at his job, he’s practically a soothsayer (and, it turns out, pretty good at construction as well). Only Samara admits she isn’t sure what career satisfaction would look like for her, but she does have a successful day job as a real estate agent. Her story centers on grappling with the dreams of her dead mother.
Motherhood is the one emotionally soft spot of If/Then. Cass is home, alone, nursing an infant for most of the book. Day excels in the details of this storyline — the feeling of milk-related let-down and the fog of sleep deprivation lend a lot of heart to Cass’ otherwise philosophical musings. Ginny is parent to a young teen boy, and her regrets about working so constantly are among the most touching sections in the book. Samara, grieving for her lost mother, steals the show when she goes to a Goodwill with a manic energy to buy up everything she can find of her mother’s. These scenes are a welcome tonal shift to sweetness. This book can’t really be described as warm, but mothering scenes like these, a secret love affair, and a dose of father-son bonding keep the story from becoming too cold.
Maybe the best TV comparison could be made to “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo” — hear me out. Day’s prose is squeaky clean. The sparse style has nothing extra — practically nothing that just adds texture or sets a scene. Ultimately, Day’s goal doesn’t seem to be human drama at all, she sidesteps that tension to favor headier topics like philosophy, aesthetics, and self-actualization. Coupled with the narrative speed, If/Then is a whirlwind of a story that somehow sticks with you.
By Kate Hope Day
Published March 12, 2019