It's never easy coming down off the high of finishing a book you've really loved. When a book just clicks with you perfectly, when the themes or style or characters meet you right exactly where you are in life, some kind of alchemy takes over and a new favorite is born. It's magical, really, and it often takes a few days or weeks to recover from the rapture.
And pity the poor book that you happen to read next, right? Because after a mountaintop reading experience, there's really only one way the next book can go. Ho hum. Blah blah. Too bad this book isn't as good as that awesome one I was reading yesterday. Why aren't all books as good as that one I was reading yesterday? Oh my gosh, what if the rest of the books in the world that I haven't read are all as vanilla as this one I'm reading now? What if I never, ever get that feeling from reading again? The world is a desolate wasteland full of books that will never measure up to the goodness of yesterday's book!
Thus it was that the cards were stacked against The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. I had just finished the amazing, the rhapsodic, the dare-I-say-life-changing Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and much like a drunken karaoke singer getting up onstage after a set by Madonna, this book got up there and belted its best, but it kinda went on a little long, I couldn't follow everything it was saying, and basically I just want Celeste Ng to publish a sophomore novel ASAP so I can once again surround myself with her genius.
I know I'm being patently unfair. This book is fine. It's based on an interesting enough premise, one I've seen before (in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life) and enjoyed: Harry August is one of a (privileged? burdened?) few who lives his life over and over again. Each time he dies, he is born again in the same place at the same time as the same old Harry, with all his memories from his previous lives intact. Eventually he discovers he's far from the only person who experiences this strange phenomenon, and he aligns himself with the Cronus Club, a worldwide group of people like him who loop through their lives in perpetuity.
The conflict arises when word comes back from future generations that the world is ending—and not just ending, but accelerating toward its end. Harry concludes that it must be someone like him who is influencing events; after all, so-called “linears” tend to behave much the same way from life to life and generally don't deviate from their established patterns. So it's Harry's job to...keep the world from ending? Or at least to make sure it only ends in the manner it normally does? I'm not exactly sure.
To be honest, there was a bit too much philosophical and scientific exposition for me. It seems fitting that my local library cataloged The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August in the science fiction section, while they placed Kate Atkinson's Life After Life in adult fiction, even though the basic mechanism behind the books is essentially the same. Atkinson's book is, to my tastes anyway, much more literary, by which I mean more concerned with character development than the scientific workings that allow the main character to live the same life an infinite number of times. If you enjoy science and theory, you would probably enjoy Harry August over Life After Life, especially if you are the kind of person who would be frustrated by a story that glosses over the whys and hows of physics and time. I, however, usually have no problem accepting whatever crazy premise an author throws at me, so I felt a little weighed down by all the pontificating.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a perfectly serviceable book. It's entertaining, thought-provoking, and creative. Unfortunately, though, at least in my reading life, it had to follow Madonna.