Georgiana D, Reviewer
Last updated on 13 Mar 2019
There have been quite a few books recently about either reliving your life or about parallel lives and universes. For me, the modern classic of this sub-genre is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but The Version of Us, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August all also jump to mind. To a greater or lesser degree, I’ve enjoyed all those books, so even if the premise of The First Time Lauren Pailing Died didn’t seem all that original, I was still excited to read it.
I think that stories of this kind can succeed in several different ways: through a thought-provoking scientific/philosophical exploration of the topic, through mind-binding twistiness, or simply as a way of telling several interesting and emotional personal stories in one. There were moments in this book where it seemed on the verge of doing all three, but ultimately, while it was a vaguely diverting family saga with some intriguing moments and some emotional ones, it never really did any one of these things well enough to capture my imagination.
The basic premise here is firstly, that the main character, Lauren (born in the 1970s in Cheshire), can see other versions of the world and the lives of herself and her loved ones through otherwise invisible sunbeams. And secondly, that whenever she dies, instead of disappearing entirely, she shifts into one of these parallel lives. For some reason, the sunbeam thing seemed to only happen to Lauren, while the shifting instead of dying thing also happened to some other characters on-page and was heavily implied to happen to pretty much everyone who died before their time. This slight disconnect between Lauren as unique versus Lauren as normal but more perceptive than average was a bit jarring and felt representative of the book not going deep enough for my tastes into the mysteries of its central scenario.
I don’t want to get into spoilers, but given the title and the way the book is presented, I was surprised by how few times the main character actually died. And, at least until the end, how little time she spends reflecting on previous lives or sneaking a peak into other worlds. As a result, most of the book isn’t very metaphysical at all and is essentially just normal people going about their business in a normal way. Which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but without mysterious distractions, the plot rather stands or falls on the strength of its characters and their lives. I liked Lauren herself, but few of the other characters made an impression and in none of the various lives did anyone do anything particularly noteworthy or exciting. It was 90% run of the mill middle class life, with 10% soap opera-style dramatic suicides and affairs with unlikely resolutions. And either way, a few scattered bright spots aside, it was mostly pretty unremittingly depressing, even allowing for the fact that a certain number of deaths were required to make the USP work.
In the final third, there is both some attempt to investigate a domestic mystery that’s been bubbling under the surface throughout and some attempt to engage with the bigger mystery of just what’s going on with Lauren on the level of both psychology and physics and as a result, I started to get more excited. But the resolution of the first mystery is somewhat underwhelming and the resolution of the second pretty inconclusive. I didn’t feel like I had any real closure – just more of the same sadness and a certain degree of wondering what the point of it all had been.
Ultimately, this was an okay book. There was just enough of both the interpersonal drama and the metaphysical intrigue to keep me reading. But it didn’t really bring anything new to the mix compared to any of the books it could be compared to and overall I was left feeling pretty underwhelmed and as though an intriguing premise had failed to burst into life.
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