I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
Oddly enough, I picked up three different books about the main character returning to their own past in the same week. This, by Robert Webb, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird, by Josie Silver, and All About Us, by Tom Ellen. So apparently this is the plot device of the year. Well, it beats a global pandemic. This is the second of the three that I’ve read, but will be the first review I post, I think, because All About Us isn’t scheduled to publish for several months, so I’ve delayed my blog post til then.
You can’t fall in love for the first time twice.
Kate’s husband Luke – the man she loved from the moment she met him twenty-eight years ago – died suddenly. Since then she has pushed away her friends, lost her job and everything is starting to fall apart.
One day, she wakes up in the wrong room and in the wrong body. She is eighteen again but remembers everything. This is her college room in 1992. This is the first day of Freshers’ Week. And this was the day she first met Luke.
But he is not the man that she lost: he’s still a boy – the annoying nineteen-year-old English student she first met. Kate knows how he died and that he’s already ill. If they can fall in love again she might just be able to save him. She’s going to try to do everything exactly the same . . .
I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Webb’s autobiography, How Not To Be A Boy, which I read last month, so when I saw that Webb was venturing into fiction, I was excited to read this offering. And the plot did sound really interesting. Still reeling from the loss of her husband of decades, Kate is deep, deep in depression. Mired in self-loathing and unable to see any joy, she’s pushed away all of her friends and is very close to the edge. Then she wakes up in her teenaged uni bedroom in York, and realises that it’s the first day of Freshers’ Week. Her husband, who was killed by a slow-growing tumour in his brain, is still alive, and she knows how to save him. She just has to convince him that she knows what she’s talking about…
I really wanted to like this book. It has some really wonderfully written and wonderfully imagined elements in it. The first third of the book is bleak and horrendous, a vicious portrait of depression and the deep, dark fog that surrounds it. Kate is isolated, furious, grieving, and doesn’t see any way out of it.
The second third of the book is funny and light-hearted. Kate, now forty-six, wakes up in her freshers’ bedroom and experiences the disconcerting experience of trying to relive her teenagerhood in exactly the same way – except she’s not even close to exactly the same person. And her amazement, amusement, and massive ballsing up of everything, is really very funny. Plus, there’s a lot to be said for how lovingly Webb draws his obnoxious teenaged characters. Kate, looking at them with cynical adult eyes, sees how they’re desperate to fit in, to stand out, to look cool, and sees them with the half-loving, half-exasperated patina of nostalgia. And it’s actually lovely, this section, seeing Kate try to figure out what she’s doing, fit in, stand out, and figure out if she can save the pretentious eighteen-year-old that has left such a huge hole in her heart later on.
The final third of the book is wildly different to the two which came before it. It’s a humorous action thriller, with high stakes and high action, and surprising depths being revealed to old relationships and connections.
None of these three sections, individually, was bad. Tragedy, Comedy, Thriller, they all had lots going for them. But they didn’t make sense to me. There was no underlying net woven between them, drawing the threads together. While I think that would be understandable between the first and second parts – as the concept of time travel necessitates some disjointedness – it really became clear in the final third, when everything is driving to its resolution. There are too many threads left undone from the first third which aren’t picked up again (like Kate’s depression so numbing she was on the verge of suicide?) and it left me feeling disconcerted, as the rapid changes in tone were unsettling. Then, finally, the epilogue created a paradox which was left… entirely unexplained?
All in all, although there were many elements of this that I enjoyed, and I think Robert Webb is incredibly skilled at writing about mental health, masculinity, traditional male/female gender roles, and grief (as well as doing a solid line in obnoxious teenagers), this book doesn’t quite hit the right note. Rather, in trying to hit too many notes, it jangles discordantly in the brain, leaving a disappointing feeling of being underwhelmed, which is the opposite of what I was expecting.