There is only one protagonist in Ellen Meister's new novel, The Other Life, but there are two plots. Quinn Braverman is a pregnant suburban mother of a 6-year-old boy, and wife of a down-to-earth guy who owns a fleet of taxis. Quinn is also the single girlfriend of a needy shock jock, who lives in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan.
The thing is, she lives both lives simultaneously and can switch between the two. Ellen Meister spoke to Weekend Edition's Liane Hansen about her romance-meets-fantasy book.
In the book, Quinn has access to a portal in her basement laundry room. The character's parallel lives, Meister says, can be traced back to Quinn's childhood.
"Something happened with Quinn, when she was a baby — and it is explained in the book — that split her life in two," she says. "And growing up she was aware that every time she made a major life decision, another life existed in which she made the opposite choice. There are portals between the two lives, and she's very much aware of them. She's actually come close and brushed against [the other life], but she's never been tempted to slip through and go from one life to the other."
That is, Meister says, "until something fairly large happens in her life that causes enough stress for her to want to see what's there on the other side."
With all the talk of portals and zapping between realities, it would be easy to classify Meister's novel as a work of science fiction, but she says that she never saw it that way.
"It never occurred to me as science fiction — it occurred to me as this very powerful 'what if?'" she says. "I got the idea because I was just sitting home one day, in that typical moment where the husband had left for work, the kids had left for school, and I was thinking about the fact that when I'm alone in the house during those precious few hours, I get to escape into this world of fiction that I've created.
"And I was focusing on that, and thought, what if a woman had the ultimate escape, the ability to actually slip through a portal to a life she would have had if she'd made different choices? I immediately pictured the portal in the most domestic scene you can imagine, right behind an ironing board in her basement, in fact in the foundation of her house, which seemed a really neat metaphor to me."
Meister admits that she had no knowledge of quantum physics or string theorist Brian Greene's contention that there may be several dimensions existing at once.
"I learned about that only after I had written the book," she says. "And I said, look at that, I stumbled onto quantum physics."
As for whether there is any of her own life in The Other Life, Meister acknowledges that she draws from reality for her fiction: "In some respects, of course. While there might not be actual facts lifted from my life, what I try to do as an author is take emotional truths and put them in fictional scenarios."
So was she concerned, as an author, that the "portal gimmick" might start to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone and bog down the writing?
"That was a very tricky thing to navigate," she says. "But I sat down and said let me see how I can make this work and make it not feel like science fiction and not even feel paranormal. I didn't say to myself, I'd love to write a magical realism book, but that was really the tone I wanted to set with this book. I really just wanted to explore this woman and her two lives and her choices."
The end of the novel leaves a great deal unresolved in Quinn's life, and Meister says she wanted it this way.
"I didn't leave it open ended for another book." she says. "What was important to me wasn't what happened, [but] what Quinn's decision was. That was where I wanted to leave the reader. What was critical was where she got to, and what decision she made."