This book is excellent, although I didn’t really enjoy it as much as it probably merited. How can both those statements be true? The fact is, while I appreciated the artistry and loved the characters, the structure of the book did not appeal to me. But I couldn’t help but admire it anyway, and I certainly couldn’t stop thinking about all the ideas within it.
The book is divided into sections that retell the basic story several times. Each iteration is set off by a different response to the same circumstances made by Jane, who is 18 and has recently lost the only mother she ever knew, her Aunt Magnolia. Each choice Jane makes leads to a different reality, and therein lies the plot.
Jane has accepted an invitation from her former high school tutor Kiran to stay at Kiran’s family estate, “Tu Reviens.” Jane agrees because she made a promise to her Aunt Magnolia before her aunt left on her final trip: “You remember your old writing tutor?” Kiran Thrash?” Aunt Magnolia said to her. “. . . If anyone ever invites you to Tu Reviens, promise me that you’ll go.” “Okay,” Jane had said. “Um, why?” Her aunt replied cryptically, “I’ve heard it’s a place of opportunity.”
Now, the author writes: “Jane suddenly feels like a character in a novel by Edith Wharton or the Brontës:
“I’m a young woman of reduced circumstances, with no family and no prospects, invited by a wealthy family to their glamorous estate. Could this be my heroic journey?”
And indeed, it turns out to be just that.
The name of the mansion, which translates to “You Return,” has more than one meaning (as does just about everything in this book). The building itself has been cobbled together from different pieces from different eras. Each room evokes a different time and different mood. The house, in essence, is a metaphor for the multiverse.
As one of the many guests in the house explains to Jane:
“The concept of the multiverse comes from the idea that every time something happens, everything else that could have happened in that moment also happens, causing new universes to break off from the old universe and come into being. So there are multiple versions of us, living different lives than the ones we live, across multiple universes, making every decision we could possibly make.”
Kiran often speculates on this idea to Jane. (Kiran’s mother is a quantum physicist and the idea of interdimensionality is much on Kiran’s mind.) She says, “I’m finding . . . that despite everything, I’m glad to live in this universe. . . . If we live in a multiverse, in which multiple versions of us liver alternate lives in an infinite series of universes, I’m glad I live in this one. I think that maybe I’m better off than some other Kirans.”
Jane is perplexed by all the strangeness she encounters in the house. Even Jasper, the basset hound, seems bizarrely attached to her, and intent on nosing her this way and that as she explores the house.
Jane takes solace in fashioning umbrellas, which she has elevated to an art form. She brings all of her umbrellas – 37 of them – and supplies to make more, with her to Tu Reviens. She relates to them and even anthropomorphizes them:
“How nice, to have a weather-resistant skin and a body that can vibrate with tension or be at rest. How satisfying to have working parts, lovingly crafted. Rain is a musical patter against Jane’s imagination. Every umbrella is born knowing that sound, its soul straining for that sound, waiting patiently through rainless day after rainless day for the day when raindrops will thrum against its skin.”
Ravi, Kiran’s twin and an art dealer, admires her umbrellas, and says Jane is a real artist. He opines that she could even open a shop somewhere, like in Paris. “Paris?,” Jane asks incredulously. “Or wherever,” Ravi says. “The world is your rainstorm.”
And of course Kiran’s reaction is: “What if you’d been born in a universe where there was no rain?”
With every new understanding Jane gleans, she fashions a new umbrella to express it. What, Jane finally wonders, would a “transdimensional” umbrella be like? “It would need to be able to blend into any scenario, in any kind of world, without drawing attention to itself. Jane has never made a plain black umbrella before.”
There are any number of more concrete mysteries than just philosophical ones that Jane encounters in the house. There has been an art theft, and the servants act very strange. So do the other guests, who sneak around at night carrying supplies and even guns. A mysterious little girl is running around the house, and Kiran’s father’s second wife Charlotte is missing. His first wife Anita apparently resides in the mansion – somewhere – but Jane never sees either wife. The house is full of whispering sounds, and sometimes shouting and music coming from strange places. And there is romance in the air. Or not. Kiran has a boyfriend Colin who is staying at the house, and Ravi has a girlfriend Lucy there, but neither Kiran nor Ravi seem happy in their relationships. Does Kiran really love one of the “servants,” Patrick? But if so, why is she so angry at him? And what about Patrick’s beautiful sister Ivy? She is always up to something strange, but Jane is attracted to her as well as to Ravi.
Part I ends, and a bell rings somewhere, just as Jane must make a choice. Should she go with Kiran to see the library and hear about Charlotte, or go talk to Mrs. Vanders, the housekeeper, who apparently knew Aunt Magnolia, or try to find out who the little girl is, or go talk to Ravi or to Ivy? And then there is Jasper, also nudging her to follow him. Which direction should she choose? The next sections all start the same, and tell what happened each time when Jane made a different choice.
Each selection in fact opens up an entire new universe, and takes the story in a new direction and a new genre! It is a crime story, then a spy story, then a horror story, then a science fiction story. Meanwhile, more of the plot strands are revealed as they come together in new ways. But the universe has bifurcated with each different choice, and suddenly there are contrasting versions of the same essential reality.
Indeed, one of the major themes is the repercussions to choices we make. Suppose, for example, you choose one college for a major as opposed to a different college in a different state for a different major. Then you may meet a different life partner than you would have otherwise. Or you decide to date one person over another. How do we know which option is the “right” one? As Kiran says to Jane about Colin: “I feel like I should like him.” Jane replies: “Aunt Magnolia used to tell me to be careful not to should all over myself…”
Another theme is that of trust and its counterpart, betrayal. This too is cleverly tied to the idea of different universes. As Jane describes betrayal, “It’s like having everything ripped away from you and then thrown back at you all sharp and unrecognizable.” So too is the notion of a different twist on a reality you thought you knew.
A rather humorous thread running through the book is, unexpectedly, that of frogs. Frogs turn up continuously in unexpected ways, often as a substitute for cats or dogs. For example, Jane’s mother, prior to her death in an accident, had been near the end of her dissertation on a new meteorological explanation for why it rains frogs. The Vermeer painting stolen from Tu Reviens, “Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid” is here depicted as “Lady Writing a Letter with her Frog.” And instead of “Schrodinger’s cat” the famous physics concept is referred to as “Schrodinger’s frog.” Is this our universe, or a different one?
In place of the stolen Vermeer there is a forgery – yet another related theme. Not only does this highlight the idea of the same thing with a slight difference, but forged copies get Jane to think about copies in general: “What if it turned out that there were copies of Aunt Magnolia? . . . What if Jane’s personal copy wasn’t the original? Would that make Jane’s aunt Magnolia less precious? Wasn’t Jane’s copy precious because she was Jane’s?
[There are so many references to other books within this book, just as there are so many universes invoked. With the preceding quote you might be reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Other works alluded to include The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, other time travel books, Dr. Who, Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Winnie-the-Pooh, inter alia.]
In the final analysis, Jane must decide which universe she wants to inhabit, and which Jane she will be, just as Kiran had to decide.
Discussion: How cleverly the author overcomes the linear restrictions of text, making her work more in fact like a computerized hypertext book, giving one the ability to branch off to other paths, explore other sites, and create and connect ad libitum. The written word no longer “fixes” reality in one place. Just like the characters in the story, we are no longer bound by time and space.
In another meta trope, rather than [just] experiencing “the reader in the text” we also experience the protagonist in the text. Through Jane, the reader examines the same plot line through multiple perspectives. Thus, our “horizon of understanding” (as German theorist Hans-Georg Gadamer phrased it), is continuously changing over the course of the book. As the plot unfolds, the author sheds new light on it, but from radically altered angles.
And there are some magical nuggets of prose scattered throughout. Some of my favorites not yet mentioned include these:
“Jane finds a clear wedge of yellow shag carpet near the morning room windows and lies down. She needs to think. The moon is smaller now, higher, paler than it was before, a slice of apple. Slowly it slides out of her view. The sky lightens and dissolves the stars.”
“Jane wonders, suddenly, if she’s being naive; if it’s normal for rich people in fancy houses to walk around with guns. This is the USA, after all; judging by the news, doesn’t every third person have a gun?”
“When Ivy turns and walks out of sight, Jane stands there for a moment, wondering how a tiny, earthbound thing like the question of whom to kiss can possibly be as confusing as transdimensional velociraptors.”
Evaluation: Although I mentioned at the outset of this review that this wasn’t really my type of book, I am so glad I read it. This is no routinely imagined story; your reading will take you on a journey through a world filled with nooks and crannies of meaning, and humor both subtle and overt. It has so much to offer in so many ways, that I think it would have been a shame if I had missed it!
Published by Kathy Dawson Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a division of The Penguin Publishing Group, 2017