6 August 2021

What If We Were Somewhere Else by Wendy J. Fox

We were sent this book to read by the publisher and usually I'm pretty disinterested in the ones we're sent as PR. The privilege isn't lost on me but I always have 10-15 books unread that I've actually paid for and am overly excited to read, so it feels like a distraction to read something I haven't been obsessing over (and we aren't usually being sent "Heather's Picks" if you know what I mean). Anyways, I am so SO glad I took the time away from my shelves to read this book. It is so good. It's the exact type of book that makes me love to read. It's exactly what I want when a book says "stories".

What If We Were Somewhere Else is written from the viewpoints of multiple different characters, all connected to a company that just underwent a huge layoff. Each of them have their own storylines and are dealing with various themes like marriage, adultery, divorce, moving, religion, estranged parents, etc. The format feels very much like those movies Valentine's Day or He's Just Not That Into You where the characters hold a common thread but each have their own plots. 

We were married to one another, and we were also married to work, and we were married to our ideas, our ridiculous ideas- so caught up in the way laundry was folded or aspirational grocery lists. Most nights the produce rotted as we hit the booze."

To say there's something here for everyone is an understatement. The characters whose stories are being told range in sex, age, marital status, etc. I actually can't think of a particular character I liked more than the other, only particular stories from each that stood out to me. This blog post would be insanely long if I went through them all but I will talk about my favourites.

One of the plotlines I enjoyed the most was about a character named Melissa who, upon being laid off from the company, moves back to the 'colony' where she was raised with her parents and the rest of the community who reject capitalism, modern technologies, medicines, etc. She spends a lot of time reflecting on why she left and how different her life in the city was, but also how much she missed certain elements of the colony when she was in the corporate world. 

The piece to this story that stuck with me the most is Melissa's memories of a friend when she was young named Claire who died of the chicken pox. She caught them somewhere and their parents thought it best to throw a party and allow all the other children 'natural immunization' against the virus, but Claire continually got worse and eventually died. The entire community no longer talks about her.

I wanted to ask both of my parents about Claire, and I wanted to ask Jay what he remembered, since he'd known her too, but Claire was even more taboo than talking about how marijuana linked us to capitalism. Even in a community that had come up in the era of consciousness raising and rejection of systems and who was decidedly pro the raising of collective voices, the few times I spoke of Claire sparked something animal, something angry. To say her name was to question something that was much more than just an admission of failure. In service of their own politics, they'd allowed a child to die."

Wendy Fox

The second story I enjoyed the most was about a character named Christian who begins the book freshly married to a woman named Rachel who works at the company but leaves her before their first year anniversary for a woman named Raquel who he meets at a party. He has a funny inner monologue about his second wedding, etc. The initial allure of Raquel eventually wans and he depressingly begins texting Rachel again and sleeping with other people, including the Lea, the sister of another character in the book named Michael. Every role in this scenario is an honest to god nightmare for me and I think I enjoyed it the way you enjoy watching Fear Factor.

In order to get their relationship back on track Raquel suggests Christian and herself move to a colony she's heard of where they live a much simpler life (the same one Melissa and her family live on). Christian agrees reluctantly, especially since he hasn't heard back from Lea after he suggests they run away together. One of the funniest moments in the book for me was when Christian chucks his phone down the newly dug hole for the outhouse on the colony as a symbol of his detachment from technology, but he doesn't power it down and from the top he can see a new flashing notification which he knows is finally a text from Lea. 

We'd had such a gorgeous wedding. It seemed stupid to hold on to that, except that in front of all your friends and family, isn't it real? Isn't it something?"

The final story I want to talk about is Michael's (Lea from the previous story's brother). His story takes place over a long period of time but the part that I most enjoyed takes place so far in the future that humans have colonized the moon. Michael continues to get government phone calls recruiting him to join the new colony based on his age and unmarried status, and life on earth is desolate, there's barely any food, etc... Michael won't go because he takes care of his elderly parents, but then they become mysteriously sick after a vacation they win and die. 

Once Michael does decide to go to the moon, his experience made me feel nauseous. He describes the desire to "go outside" and "breathe fresh air" - not something I identify with currently but if I was restricted to an oxygen controlled bubble at all times I would definitely go insane from not being able to go outside. At one point too the government on earth stops responding and sending supplies. It's assumed Earth has been flooded completely and they all have to decide to eject themselves and shoot for Mars where they've heard of a new colony. Michael and his moon partner's "vehicle" goes the wrong way and the dialogue here I felt was so funny and well-written:

A thruster engaged, and they both felt the force. They hovered for a moment, and then they cried out: immediately it was clear they were on a trajectory towards Earth, not towards Mars. The launch codes were apparently old and so they hurtled towards what was once their homeland but was now a hot ocean. Or the codes were not old. "I thought we'd go the other way," Michael said. "Me too," Sabine said. "We'll burn up in the atmosphere," Michael said. "It will go fast."

Something so simple and hilarious about "I thought we'd go the other way," and "me too".

Overall I just loved this book so much. Fox uses all of these somewhat bleak stories to tap perfectly into what it means to be human and connecting it all by means of a company layoff is such a great symbol of the rat race we're all in one way or another. I've added Fox's novel If The Ice Had Held to my book list and can't wait to get around to it. I'd be very surprised if this doesn't make my best of 2021 list. It's for sale in November of this year if anyone wants to read it too.

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