Becky’s One Hundred and Thirty-Second Book Review: “The Effect of Living Backwards” by Heidi Julavits

I had “The Effect of Living Backwards” sitting on my shelf for at least a few years. I have picked it up a couple of times, contemplated reading it, and then put it back in favor of something else that caught my eye. I finally picked it up and started reading it. I finished it over a week ago and I still haven’t been able to figure out if I liked it. On the one hand, the book was written very well and it was entertaining. On the other hand, it was kind of a mind-fuck.

“We’re taught to find the antecedents to our adult failures in childhood traumas, and so we spend our lives looking backwards and pointing fingers, rather than bucking up and forging ahead. But what if your childhood was all a big misunderstanding? An elaborate ruse? What does that say about failure? Better yet, what does that say about potential?” (The Effect of Living Backwards, pg 4). This quote sums up a lot of the themes in this book in just a few sentences. The main character, Alice, comes across as a little crazy. She had a very strange childhood and when we meet her she is at this weird place that seems like it is supposed to be a bizarre mental hospital of sorts. It is never made really clear to me where she is, it’s called a ‘role play complex’ but that doesn’t really make sense to me. The novel focuses on Alice and her relationship with her sister, Edith and the experiences that they went through together.

At this strange place where we first meet Alice, she is being pushed to retell the story about the hijacking that she was a part of a few years ago. Once she starts to tell her story, we go back to when the hijacking was actually happening. The way this book is written is a few different characters are introduced and then there is a chapter featuring one of the supporting characters. We learn the depths of everyone, which was interesting, but at the same time it was almost overwhelming? I like development of characters as much as the next guy, but at what point do you draw the line? How much do we really need to know about each character? “I had never been anybody, I was free to be anyone.” (The Effect of Living Backwards, pg 5).

The big advantage to dedicating a chapter a piece to supporting characters is we were able to see their development, which made for a more interesting story. One of the women who is on the plane with Alice and her sister proved to have – if possible – an even stranger childhood than Alice and Edith. This was one of her quotes that I found to be very self-aware and at the same time, it really explained the woman and her behaviors. “I realized that I was not a creative woman, merely a strangely raised woman, and that exposing one’s children to exceptional situations will not protect them from mediocrity.” (The Effect of Living Backwards, pg 177).

The whole deal with Alice and Edith is they have a strange relationship. They are sisters and were raised in very strange circumstances. Then they are on a plane that gets hijacked and everything changes. Edith is supposed to be getting married and now everything is called into question because they are thrown into this unexpected terror. On the one hand, they both take turns being brave and almost standing up to the guys. On the other hand, they both let the hijackers push them around. It was interesting to see the range of emotions that the girls went through in turn. “We imagine we will react a certain way to imminent tragedy, and yet the reality is that the mind fails to respond as we expect it will respond. Fear can desert you when you are most petrified, leaving you calm, composed, capable of constructing sober strategies; it can make you wonder, in the absence of any conventional emotional response, what the hell kind of monster you are.”  (The Effect of Living Backwards, pg 212). The hijacking really did give both Alice and Judith the opportunity to see what they were like in an extraordinary situation. They both reacted in different ways and they both took turns being the strong one. Their relationship was definitely an interesting one.

“You couldn’t pull these women away from their beating, drunken, jobless husbands with a backhoe, and thus I began to wonder why I was so hell-bent on trying. It was part of the reason I dropped out of grad school, part of the reason that waitressing appeared to be a far more noble way to serve humanity. People tend to know what they want, and it’s nice to just give it to them sometimes, without telling them they’re wrong for wanting it.” (The Effect of Living Backwards, pg 213). This quote I had to include because it just struck me. How often is it that you encounter a situation with people and they do know what they want to the point where you can give it to them? I never thought about waitressing at that level. Heidi Julavits definitely put a new spin on it for me.

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. I still find myself contemplating the story, trying to figure out exactly what it was that happened. Trying to understand Alice and Judith and what was real and what wasn’t. If you’re looking for a beach read, I wouldn’t pick this up. My brain was far too engaged while reading this book to consider it a beach read. It has a lot of depth to it and I still can’t figure out if I liked it. I may have to find some more of the author’s works to determine if I like it. There were a lot of aspects to this book that I did enjoy, there were certainly a lot of quotes that I wrote down in my pink sparkly notebook (and I didn’t even include them all). “The Effect of Living Backwards” is a notable work and I think that if in the right mindset, many people would enjoy it.