Book review: Again Again by e. lockhart

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia)

Linear time occupying a single, rather crowded universe can feel constricting at times.

Everything we do, from catching a certain bus to repairing a relationship with an estranged friend or relative is a one-shot deal, condemned to a single moment in time, whether successful or not, from which there is no going back or sideways.

E. Lockhart tackles this palpable sense of suffocating singular reality in her gloriously good new book Again Again, which examines with real, affecting humanity how very different one moment in time can be for somebody.

In this case, Adelaide Buchwald, a young woman going into her final year of school who finds herself one summer, in-between walking five dogs and worrying about her addict younger brother Toby, falling in and out of love in ways numerous and profound and always intensely ripe with feeling.

Adelaide is no incurious, impassive bystander when it comes to life.

She FEELS everything very deeply, and while she has an intelligent, thoughtful head on her shoulders, she is very much captive to surges of emotion, whether they are from romance, family or a lingering sense that she isn’t quite sure what to do with her life.

Or rather, what she will be able to do with her life if she fails out of exclusive private school Alabaster Prep, where her father heads the Modern Languages Department, and which is six hours drive away from her mother and brother who have stayed behind in Baltimore so Toby has the best chance possible of achieving lasting sobriety.

“It was the third day of Adelaide Buchwald’s summer job, the summer after her junior year at boarding school.That summer she would fall in and out of love more than once,
in different ways
in different worlds.
In every world, she was consumed with the intense contradictions of her heart.” (P. 3)

Simply put, Adelaide has a lot of her plate.

She has always had a lot on her plate, for the last few years anyway where Toby’s addiction and the financial and emotional costs that has engendered has turned her young life upside down in ways she has no real way of processing properly.

She is, as many of us are, a contradictory person.

She is independent and eminently capable of fending for herself but she also desperately wants to be looked after; she can stand on her own two emotional feet but wants to be consumed and subsumed by love so strong and powerful it becomes her world even if affects her schoolwork.

She is, in short, very rawly, honestly, deeply human and Lockhart portrays her and her life with a truthfulness that defies any expectations you may entering Again Again.

These expectations come from the start of the book which has a delightful Sliding Doors-esque feel where Adelaide, at the dogpark with all five dogs encounters Jack, a fascinating young man with whom she shared a bond at a party some two years back and with whom she feels there might be a real shot at a meaningful future, an especially important thing for Adelaide in the light of recent heartbreak and Toby’s ongoing battle with opioids addiction.

e. lockhart (image courtesy Allen & Unwin Australia (c) Heather Weston)

We see a number of possibilities for how this nascent connection with Jack could play out – the book opens with an advisory that “This story takes place in a number of worlds. But mostly two.” – with each scene being rendered in about four different and subtly unique ways, and portrayed in different degrees of bolding and fonts.

Some might dismiss the structure and approach of Again Again as gimmicky but it is anything but, with each step through another strand in the multiverse redolent with truth, meaning and an aching sense of Adelaide’s sense of lostness and need to escape the emotional storm that envelops her even as she remains unaware of how intense that storm is raging inside her.

Just how intense this storm is in revealed in nuanced increments, delivered not as some big reveal moment but simply as brick upon brick in Adelaide’s short but complicated life.

Rather than being some sort of recalcitrant, un-self aware teen, Adelaide is a beguiling mix of lost and found, of knowing and wholly unknowing, of smart and bright and shiny, and sad and pained and a mess.

Lockhart renders her with real insight and empathy, offering up a protagonist who is sweet, charming and possessed of witty oneliners and sage understanding of the world but also beset by doubts and insecurity and a shuddering awareness that life is cruelly unpredictable and possessed of so much possibility, much of which doesn’t seem to be realised.

In her world, at least.

“It feels important somehow. Like it matters more than any other relationship ever could. But then, maybe it’s just my feelings for Mikey blurring and smooshing together with my feelings for Jack, so that when
I think I love Jack, really it’s that
I love Mikey, and the truth is
I have some
romantic obsessional tendencies.” (P. 221)

In the multiverse of possibilities which infuses Again Again with a magical but grounded sense of the many ways in which things can manifest, pretty much anything can happen, which Lockhart demonstrates with real art and humanity in a book which plays with structure and style but never forgets the truths of life that underpin each and every scene.

Scenes which are replete with endless musing on love and romance, life and the world around us, which meditate in ways that feel starkly real and as emotionally resonant as they come, and yet offer up hope that somewhere in the vast realm of “what ifs” there exists a place where life is good and wonderful, and while imperfect, makes sense.

Well, enough sense to make life liveable anyway.

Watching Adelaide stumble towards this place with as much grace and emotional openness as anyone saddled with pain and loss early on can muster is a rewarding joy because even in the worst of times, there is a possibility dangling tantalisingly somewhere, that something good is in the offing.

That’s the way of life isn’t it?

In Again Again, Lockhart succeeds brilliantly with wit, verve and tremendous understanding of the frailties and robustness of the human condition, in exploring what it means to lose, find and make sense of the contradictory messiness of love, something which propels and sustains us at every turn, but which doesn’t come in any one-size-fits-all model and which can find itself expressed in multiple different ways, at the end of all of which might be the happy ending, or happy enough ending, that Adelaide, and indeed all of us, are looking for.

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