Six Second-Chance, Do-Over, Reliving-Life Stories
The Second-Chance Books
I've been reminded lately how much I love a good second-chance book in which the main character gets the opportunity to go back and try again, redo their life, shift their circumstances, or change the situation around them.
It's an irresistible do-over premise for me: a flawed human gets another shot at existing in this unpredictable, problematic, glorious world--and appreciating it more fully while changing their original outcomes.
Three more I'd like to read along these lines include:
Maybe In Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid;
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Replay by Ken Grimwood
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear what you thought! Which other books should I add to my second-chance book list?
Here are some of my favorite books on this theme. Two of these books also made it onto my Six Riveting Time-Travel Escapes Greedy Reading List--along with four other great stories.
01 All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
There are flying cars in the alternate reality of this book. I think you should know that going in, because it’s not the only fantastic thing, but it is one of the fantastic things in Elan Mastai's All Our Wrong Todays.
Our main protagonist Tom makes a decision that strands him in our version of the world, which feels like a dystopia to him. He encounters alternate versions of his loved ones and universe, which are jarring, but they grow on him. He strikes out to explore time and place in an effort to figure out which reality to preserve.
Mastai provides a fascinating story with time travel, alternate realities, love, loss, humor, bravery, and moments that made me laugh out loud.
I didn't always follow the logic as laid out in the book--including the supposed development of time travel itself and how time travelers affect realities--but I loved suspending my disbelief to be part of it. I loved All Our Wrong Todays!
02 The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
“What is the point of me?
Either to change a world--many, many worlds, each touched by the choices I make in my life, for every deed a consequence, and in every love and every sorrow truth--or nothing at all.”
Harry August has been born (in a train station in 1919) many times. From his second birth on, he is born each time carrying the knowledge from his previous lives, yet nothing seems to change the fact that he will die and begin again.
Until his eleventh life, when a young girl arrives at his deathbed. "I nearly missed you, Doctor August," she says. "I need to send a message."
Claire North has crafted a fascinating, twisty, thoughtful time-travel story. The first-person perspective drew me deeply into Harry's life.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is often funny, but North layers darkness into her book, as well as fascinating layers of betrayal. This story really hooked me.
Side note: Claire North is a pen name for Catherine Webb, a young-adult author who wrote her first book, Mirror Dreams, when she was 14.
03 The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Nora Seed feels like she can't go on. Life is too much, there's no hope for anything better, and her future contains nothing more for her. Her despair leads her to try to end her life.
But she finds herself transported to an in-between state that is not life and not death, in the form of a library that exists outside of time and holds shelves full of the "books" of all of her possible lives, from that frozen moment (midnight) forward. Each possibility of a present and future is built upon different combinations of decisions Nora could have made in her life in the past. Some lives are notable, others comfortable, and still others are full of pain.
Nora dips in and out of different lives, trying on careers, love lives, travel adventures, fame and fortune, and a settled family life. But not having experienced and remembered each moment that led to her various life options--which she joins in medias res--keeps Nora at a distance from them.
I didn't feel emotionally invested in Nora's story although I appreciated the implications of her experiences and was very interested in what would happen. The ending isn't unexpected, but it does feel hard-fought and satisfying.
04 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Ursula didn't survive her own birth. But during her next go-round, she survived being born--only to die young in an accident. When she lived her next life, she met her demise another way. She often feels buoyed or hindered by a feeling of déjà vu, and occasionally she feels compelled to take another path, rush to check on a loved one, or take some other seemingly odd action, and she can't quite explain why.
In Life After Life, Atkinson focuses her literary fiction lens on the character of Ursula, her relationships with members of her family, and details of life during World Wars I and II. This would be a captivating book even without the redoing-life element. But Atkinson's thrusting of Ursula back into her same existence as she shifts her circumstances slightly (with enormous repercussions); opens up her life to be bigger and more fulfilling (and, often longer); and develops inner strength, conviction, and self-assuredness--that's the real magic.
I read (listened to) the immersive story about do-overs from Kate Atkinson, Life After Life, at the recommendation of my wise friend Laura.
Click here for my full review of Life After Life.
05 In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
Dannie is on the path to achieving her five-year goals in spectacularly efficient fashion. She goes to sleep one evening satisfied--but she wakes up in another life: with a strange apartment, a different boyfriend, and an alternate set of choices behind and before her. And perhaps most confusingly of all, in this second life she's lost some of her original, lifelong, rigid plans for her future, yet she's happy. Very very happy.
She returns to her original reality, but Dannie can’t shake the possibilities and uncertainty created by what felt like an actual, temporary shift in her existence. What happened? But more importantly: What does that vastly different set of circumstances and her satisfaction within it mean about how she can and should live her life?
Serle's In Five Years totally hit the spot for me, and it also wasn’t exactly what I expected. The setup seems like it’s a romance, but it’s really a story about loyalty and devoted friendship without easy or saw-it-coming resolutions, and not everything is as it seems. I loved it.
06 The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver
Lydia had planned to spend the rest of her life with her childhood sweetheart and fiancé, Freddie, in their hometown of Shropshire, England. Now she's coming to terms with the recent and tragic loss of the person she loved and the future she had envisioned.
But a medication aimed to help her sleep during this difficult time induces an incredible side effect: when she sleeps after taking it, she exists in a dreamworld where Freddie is still alive. She can see him, smell him, and touch him. He is unaware that this is a second reality for Lydia and unaware of anything odd about this life, and Lydia must fight to not seem as though she is grieving him--fortunately, this is made easier by how real he seems in this other timeline.
Life in this alternate sleep reality continues branching off from the daytime life in which Freddie is gone; her sleeping life involves its own joys, tragedies, and increasingly complicated set of circumstances that show the realistically plausible challenges and crossroads the couple might have faced because of their real-life career tracks, senses of responsibility, and diverging paths toward happiness.
Josie Silver's lovely book is heartwarming and doesn't feel overly sentimental or emotionally manipulative. The characters' feelings of anger, crushing grief, and hope feel real in both realities she's created. There's joy, and there's sadness, and there are messy routes toward forgiveness and cautious optimism. For my full review, please see The Two Lives of Lydia Bird.