Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to A Letter to Myself, by Lemoncholy (Spotify, YouTube).
It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can't mix a romance book, a time travel story, a Jane Austen pastiche, an epistolary novel and family drama. Or is it? Well, it seems that the Universe will have to check which truths it acknowledges because all that (and more) is what Scott Wilbanks has done in the very entertaining The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster.
Wilbanks's debut novel is, thus, many things in one, but, above all, it is the story of a handful of misfits. All the characters of the novel are very different (they even come from different centuries!) but have one thing in common: they found it difficult to fit in the place and time they are supposed to live in. All of them have experienced their problems that have made them loners in some way:
El was not lovely. She was old and dusty. And she spent her evenings sitting in the wooden rocking chair by the fireplace gathering more dust. Inevitably, she had a book in hand, which she read through wire-rim spectacles that took delight in slowly slipping down the bridge of her nose. This was not an easy task for the spectacles, as El had a rather large hook on her nose that one would think obstructed their mischief. They managed anyway.
And as he was crossing Church and Twentieth on his way to Annie’s house, Christian saw the face for the third time. His own had been pressed, inevitably, in a book. Christian was something of a reading opportunist—science fiction, primarily. He read while he ate breakfast. He read on his lunch break. He read before he slipped off to sleep each night. He even read while crossing Church Street, ignorant of gathering rain clouds—not the most brilliant activity if his aim was survival. But Christian wasn’t a survivalist. If he was, he’d work in any field but the one in which he found himself. He worked in finance.
Through the magic of time travel, these characters will be involved in an unexpected adventure that will include danger, murder and surprising revelations and, most importantly, will bond them together and find their purpose in life.
If you, like me, are a seasoned science fiction reader, this description might look slightly unappealing and, in fact, I think that The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster will probably prove more popular among general readers than within SF fandom (I can't help recalling books such as The Time Traveler's Wife, for instance). But you shouldn't judge too lightly, for there is a lot to like in this novel.
I did really enjoy the way the book is written, especially in the first chapters, intertwining conventional narration with the letters that El and Annie write to each other. The prose is warm and funny, with a light but wonderful sense of humor as, for instance, in the following short excerpts:
Lacking the disposition for subtlety, I’ll get directly to the point. Trespass is dealt with at the business end of a shotgun in these parts!
And while it may appear to the contrary, I am not by nature the quarreling type, though that sissy of a representative from the county tax assessor’s office might beg to differ. Frankly, I think the reports of his limp are greatly exaggerated.
Westport, Kansas, was a community of thoroughbreds, where proper breeding was not only expected, but also required. Decorum was the air the town breathed, and the first commandment of local society was “mind your own damn business.” Privacy was considered so sacred to the good people of the township and so jealously guarded that—and this should come as no surprise—there were no secrets there at all, human nature being what it is. Everyone was taught reconnaissance at their mama’s knee and went on to become an agent provocateur. In Westport, secrets were scandal, and scandal was sport.
Even those who survived the carnage of the rumor mill learned that Westport was anything but an egalitarian society. A pecking order existed. The big hens pecked at the smaller hens that, in turn, pecked at the even smaller hens on down the line until they reached the last unfortunate soul with no one to peck.
The time travel story per se might not be so elaborated as in other, hard-core SF novels, but it has all the tropes of the genre, including paradoxes and attempts to change the future by changing the past. The explanations, though, are a bit handwavy and I would have liked it if some of the ideas that are only hinted at would have been more thoroughly explored:
P.S. I offer a topic for discussion. The past is nothing more than the present romanticized, while the future is history with imagination. Any thoughts?
A tree looks much the same from one century to another, but a city is another thing altogether.
The novel also some issues, probably because of its own ambition. The structure is a bit uneven, with large chunks in which nothing is known about certain events or characters that then suddenly return, and the narration sometimes becomes a bit confusing. The main problem for me was, however, that some of the characters add very little to the story and they even could have been removed without greatly affecting the overall plot. I'm thinking, for instance, of Nathaniel and of Christian and Edmond, although I think that the relationship of the latter two was a perfect example of how to write about a gay couple without stridency and in a completely natural and normal fashion.
All in all, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster is an entertaining, original and optimist novel. It might be not everybody's cup of tea, but I recommend that you give it a try if you're looking for a time travel story that strays from the trodden path.