Rachel Wiltshire has everything she’s ever wanted: a close group of friends, a handsome boyfriend, and acceptance to the journalism program at her top-choice college. But one fateful evening, tragedy tears her world apart.
Five years later, Rachel returns home for the first time to celebrate her best friend’s wedding. Still coping with her grief, she can’t stop thinking about the bright future she almost had, if only that one night had gone differently. But when a sudden fall lands her in the hospital, Rachel wakes to find that her life has completely changed. Now she has her dream job as a writer and a stylish apartment, but the people she loves most are not the way she remembers them. Unable to trust her own recollections, Rachel tries to piece together what really happened, and not even she can predict the astonishing truth.
*Please note: This will be a spoiler-free review because, well, it’s not nice to spoil a great book for someone!
One of my favourite films from the late 90’s is a movie starring Gwenyth Paltrow called Sliding Doors. The movie is good, but not great (it wasn’t up for any awards) but there’s something about the premise of a split second that could change your life. We all wonder what would have happened had we taken that different road, chosen that different seat at the table, or even talked to that different person. Too often, though, we don’t follow through, and we are left to wonder. When I was reading Then and Always, I experienced that same delicious frisson of “what if”, and I knew that this would be my beach read of the summer, and that I would be recommending it to everyone in store.
To begin, we meet Rachel, out for an evening of celebration and fun with friends. A chance event ends things and there are irrevocable changes made to the group — or are there? Why had Rachel’s memories changed so dramatically? What really happened that night? There’s a mystery element to this story that kept me guessing throughout. I really enjoyed how Akins allowed Rachel to keep her memories from her past life while trying to figure out her new one, without allowing that prior knowledge to bog down the pacing of the story. There is no “crossing time streams” drama here; simply a woman who is trying to come to terms with a new – and happier – reality than she thought she was living.
There’s more to this story than just a parallel lives twist; there’s also a mystery concerning Rachel’s memories and a romance as Rachel must face her feelings for her best friend. There are twists and turns (some you see coming, while others are completely out of the blue) that keep you guessing, and people you think you know will surprise you. That might sound complicated, but Atkins manages to weave all the threads together into a cohesive storyline that draws you along, feverishly turning pages in order to discover just what might happen next. It’s a pretty amazing piece of writing, especially when you consider this is the author’s debut book.
Atkins also does a great job of giving us characters that we begin to know and understand by their actions, rather than by simple narration. The characters seem so young at the start of the story, and that’s because they are – just starting out, facing a future that is unknown with excitement and a little trepidation. We come to know Rachel and her friends as the story progresses, learning more about them and their history (Rachel’s in particular) as the memories unfold. As in real life, the people you are friends with at one point in your life are not necessarily the friends you would have later on, and it was interesting to me to see how these relationships had changed. As in real life, I found myself liking Rachel more and more, and I was staying up far too late in order to find out what had happened to her!
Second chance stories can be difficult to narrate. Then and Always manages to take this trope and turn it sideways, giving us a main protagonist who genuinely want to use this second chance in the best way possible, learning from her past mistakes in order to make the ‘right’ decision this time around. Her goal isn’t untold wealth or power; it’s simply that she wants to be happy, and she wants the people she loves to be happy as well. Atkins has managed to write a deceptively light tale that resonates with you long after you’ve wiped your eyes and closed the covers. What would you do if you were given a second chance to make everything right?
Then and Always was provided by Penguin Canada as part of a Blog Tour and in exchange for an honest review. It is now out, and available for purchase via your favourite indie bookstore and through Indigo and Kobo. ISBN: 9780143190639, 320 pages.