You Again by Debra Jo Immergut
I just finished reading You Again by Debra Jo Immergut and I enjoyed it very much. It was the kind of book that I couldn’t wait to get back to, that I stayed up way too late reading, and was late getting back from my lunch break because of, and then, after finishing it in a few days (eating it up, as it were), I felt sad to no longer be immersed in it.
I can’t remember why I chose this book out of the huge pile of advance reader copies I had to winnow down when we moved out of our house. The colors of the cover caught my eye. And I thought maybe I remembered hearing that this author was the friend of another author I know, but now I can’t remember whom that might have been. But something about the plot description on the back of the book grabbed me (even though I really do try not to read back cover copy because it often gives too much away). All this factors made me hold on to the book and once I started to read it, within the first few pages, I was hooked.
The book is mostly in a journal format written by Abby, the main character. It’s 2015 in NYC (it was time for a good NYC book!), and Abby and her husband Dennis have given up their promising art careers for workaday jobs to support the two teenage sons with whom they live in a Brooklyn brownstone in a not-quite gentrifying neighborhood. (Speaking of which, this book has a lot of characters driving places and parking in garages or, at the very least, easily finding parking spots, which is not something I ever experienced in NY!)
The action is kicked off when Abby spies a girl on the street who looks exactly like herself 24 years ago, when she was a freewheeling NYC party girl and before the occurrence of some as yet undisclosed hazily recalled traumatic event. Back when she was still aspiring to be the promising and highly regarded artist she would become, and before she gave that part of herself up.
Is this girl on the street the younger Abby? Is she even real? Are we experiencing some sort of rupture of the space-time continuum?
All of those are the questions the book asks, and I do love a good time travel book!
Debra Jo Immergut is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and she has been the recipient of fellowships at respected places like the MacDowell Colony. This is her second novel and third book, the other being a collection of short stories, and she has been published in places such as the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. In our system at Barnes & Noble, the book is listed as literary fiction. However, Immergut’s first book was nominated for an Edgar award, which is for mysteries, and this book feels more to me like a psychological thriller.
So, if you’re looking for a good immersive read, I highly recommend this.
But… (did you hear that coming? My friends always tell me they can hear the “but” coming.) As much as I liked it, as a former editor myself (once an editor always an editor, to be truthful), I found a lot of flaws in the book. Should I write about them? I asked myself. Do the flaws matter given that I liked the book so much? Do I need to out the author (or more likely, the editor) on this? Actually, if I hadn’t liked the book so much, it would have been easier to let the flaws go as part of a book that was flawed overall, but this one isn’t flawed overall. It’s such a good book and she’s such a good writer! Why did they let these mistakes go by?
So here goes… if you plan to read the book, stop reading here, because these will be spoilers for sure.
Ok, #1 – her relationship with her husband, Dennis. He is described as a handsome California surfer dude, and we hear a lot about the passionate beginning of their relationship when they met in art school. And after things go awry in their relationship, there are scenes where we see them bumbling around together, trying to figure things out. But before things go wrong, at the beginning of the book, we aren’t given any scenes of them together that show us what they were like together before the problems of the book started. Later he says to her: how did we get here? But where did they come from? I would have liked at least one scene to show me what things were like between them before things started to go awry. Were they estranged? Aware of a rift or distance? Still having hot sex? That was something I felt I needed/wanted to know to better understand what came next.
Next… Later, at a pivotal scene – Mariah’s party. Abby is wandering around looking for Mariah and Dennis, who are both missing. Would Mariah really leave her own party for so long? But ok, so Abby considers looking upstairs in the bedrooms for them but doesn’t. Later it turns out they were in the garage. Why would they have gone to the garage, not the bedrooms? Just for her plot point? And then it turns out Dennis survives the blast because he was on the other side of Mariah’s big SUV. Wait, they were trysting in the garage but they were standing on opposite sides of her big car? Huh? You can’t even see each other over a car that big.
The whole book has a frame of scientists and a detective studying her case post whatever we the reader don’t yet know is going to happen, and then in the end these scientists deliver a statement about the unusual but they believe real brain events that happened to Abby. Not sure we really need that. I personally like it when I am left myself to decide what happened and to wonder was it real and/or possible. I like that remaining soupcon of mystery. I didn’t need her to trot out a few fictional experts to give me a final summation. And getting to know the character of the one scientist throughout the book didn’t add much to the story for me.
Another thing that felt to me like an error in logic: In the end, when the scientist/neurologist Tristane meets Abby, she notes that Abby is still so weak that the trip from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side hospital greatly tired her. And yet we learn that Abby now has a new part-time job that is soon to switch to full time. How can that be if she is still so weak?
Speaking of jobs, what does Dennis do? We are told he works in engineering. I wouldn’t have minded something more specific. Since such a big deal is made about what kind of art he did (big metal sculptures) and then he gives it up and joins the working world, it’s reasonable of me as a reader to wonder what kind of job he did. And then he is fired because they discover he has been padding his expense account. Hmmm.. not sure that goes along with how his character is otherwise presented. And then after the incident, he gets a job in “sales.” Again, it wouldn’t have taken really any more space to give us something more specific.
A few more things… When Abby first goes to see the psychiatrist and tells her she is a former patient and asks if the doctor has her records, the doctor says they are locked away in a storage unit somewhere. But at the end of the book, after the doctor dies, Abby finds that her office has been ransacked, and later we learn that the detective has the doctor’s notes. How so if they were in a storage unit?
After the fire in their house, the fire marshal declares that it was caused by a faulty water heater. And yet, not two pages later, Abby is wondering if they will ever figure out what caused the fire. And later in the book they continue to wonder if A set the fire. Since not knowing how the fire started is key to the plot, I wonder why she included that statement by the fire marshal.
So what does this say about me that, despite liking this book so much, I am bothered by these details? And that I took all the time this just took to write about them?
You can draw your own conclusions of course, but I think it’s because I am really trying to understand the structure of the books I read so that it can help me to better write my own novel, which I have been working on for a long time and which I really need to kick into gear. I feel like these are the sort of questions my writers group would ask me if I presented some of this work to them: what was Abby and Dennis’ relationship like? What was Dennis’ job? My smart writer friends are always telling me things like this: don’t just have your character working on writing a novel – you need to know what that novel she is writing is about. It’s the details that make it work, and if your details are all in order, your book is better, stronger. This stuff I’ve pointed out here is just small consistency stuff, stuff that could have easily been fixed if someone had pointed it out to the author. She’s clearly a really good writer. She writes great sentences AND she is a very good story teller, and this is a very compelling, imaginative plot. I will definitely be recommending this book. I’ve already put it on my “Lynn’s List” table at the bookstore, and I will push it even more once it’s out in paperback. I just needed to get all these comments out, so thanks for listening!