Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Do You Remember The First Time – Jenny Colgan

‘This is not my beautiful house ... my God, how did I get here?’ – Talking heads, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, misquoted.

It’s a common feeling among people of a certain age – my age, or that of Flora, the main character in this book (ok, that’s about a ten-years span but still …) To feel that life has somehow got away from you, that it’s become fixed in a whole bunch of ways you’re not sure you’re happy with. Flora’s response is familiar too: ‘I wish I was seventeen again.’ To be able to go back to when life was still unwritten, to a simpler and better time, or to do it all again, and differently this time. It’s a classic question. If you could have it all again, go back to when you were sixteen or seventeen or whatever age it is for you and do things differently – what would you change? Or would you, as the song says, do it all again?

There have been times when I’ve had the same thought – wished I could be sixteen again. If you knew me when I was sixteen then you may or may not understand why! And that’s what interested me about the premise of this book. It’s something I’ve thought about far too much to be honest, because in reality it’s futile and arguably destructive. To quote another song – this is the life you have, this is the life you live. As it says in Ecclesiates, “Do not say, Why were the old days better than these? For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (7:10).

And the book? Well, it takes an interesting twist on the theme. After her wish, Flora is suddenly seventeen again – but not in her own past, she’s still in the present, in a life that therefore she does not know. Only her close friends even know her from her life before, and of them, only her parents have been dragged back in age with her. And she’s been jumped back just a month, so she has a convenient length of history to re-live before the event that prompted her wish, and which no doubt will bring her back – somehow. And then when she gets back to her own life and time, she’ll be living in a different world, a world changed by her actions during her month, which of course makes for a nice satisfying conclusion.

The premise is perhaps a little contrived, but let’s face it, it’s not supposed to be realistic, and any novel is allowed one “gimme” as they say, even if in this case it’s a fairly elaborate one. Other stories I’ve come across have used one of two approaches: either going back in time in your own body (hot tub time machine – yes, I know, I was on a plane) or being rejuvenated in an otherwise unchanged world and time (17 again – ditto).

I did enjoy the book, and on the whole found the conclusion satisfying (apart from her giving up maths and taking art – which touches on a very unhelpful gender model which I think needs desperately to be undermined, not reinforced, at every opportunity). But the fact remains that the whole theme of “what I were seventeen again” isn’t a helpful one. What struck me around the time I read this, after a recent night / day dream on the theme was – if, were I to go back those twenty-something years, I could go back and change my life – why can’t I change my life in the same ways now? That is probably a more constructive question.


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