Parallel by Lauren Miller
Published: 2013, HarperTeen
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction, Contemporary
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That's the funny thing about life. We're rarely aware of the bullets we dodge. The just-misses. The almost-never-happeneds. We spend so much time worrying about how the future is going to play out and not nearly enough time admiring the precious perfection of the present.
Abby is about as Type A as a person can get. She’s known what career path she wants in life for many years now (a reporter) and has tailored her academics and extracurricular activities so that she’ll be the perfect applicant for Northwestern University’s Journalism School. Everything seems to be going perfectly until Abby finds out that she can no longer take History of Music (which was supposed to be her easy class for the fall semester of her senior year). She’s given the choice between drama and astronomy classes. Neither one appeals to her, but she ends up going with drama, finding out along the way she’s quite the talented actress. She lands the lead in her school’s musical and shortly thereafter is offered a role in a big-budget movie in Hollywood. Her senior year doesn’t end up going quite as planned, as Abby misses prom, graduation, and her last summer at home. She keep reminding herself that she’ll start classes at Northwestern soon enough, but the length of filming keeps getting pushed further and further back.
After a night of partying with her movie cast, Abby wakes up not in her Hollywood hotel room, nor at home or in a dorm at Northwestern. Instead, she finds herself living at Yale, where she’s currently a freshman. Everyone she knows isn’t surprised by her student status in the slightest; In fact, they all have vivid memories of the various choices Abby made over the past year that led to her enrolling at Yale, starting with a canceled class senior year. Except instead of choosing drama, Abby chose to take astronomy.
For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the Abby who is jolted from life as a movie star to life as a student at Yale, all the while retaining memories of her other life, as “Abby.” The Abby who was a student at Yale and finds herself back in the past the year before, with no memories of what her future will hold, will be referred to as the “parallel self.”
Obviously this story is told through dual narratives. I think the focus is definitely on Abby, the unhappy actress, rather than her parallel self. Because of that, I think it would have been possible to tell the story through simply Abby’s perspective, but by doing that the story would have lost much of what makes it so fascinating. This is more Abby’s story, but Abby’s story (and her life) is directly influenced by her parallel self’s story and life. For the most part the story progresses chronologically. The cosmic collision that caused the two parallel universes to collide occurs the night before Abby’s birthday, the fall after graduation for Abby and the fall of senior year for her parallel self. The narrative alternates between recounting Abby’s experiences in Yale, and her parallel self’s experiences during that exact same time frame (but one year earlier). At times I found myself a bit confused by exactly how the various events/decisions matched up in the two worlds, but Miller writes well enough that any confusion never lasted very long on my part.
Parallel explores some really interesting concepts regarding parallel universes and cosmic collisions. Abby navigates these scientific theories with the help of her best friend Caitlin and her high school astronomy professor. The science is where Parallel really shines: it’s accessible without feeling condescending or dumbed-down for those readers without a scientific background (like me). It’s clear that Miller put quite a bit of research into these fringe theories, and I enjoyed learning about them alongside Abby.
Parallel also provides an interesting juxtaposition between familiar, overused tropes in young adult literature, and a few less common ones. In her Atlanta hometown, Abby’s mother is such a good museum curator that she get prestigious exhibits and offers to work for the very best art museums. Abby’s best friend Caitlin is model-gorgeous, which makes sense as her mother is a retired model-turned-designer. There’s not really a question of Abby getting accepted into Northwestern’s journalism school because she wants this so badly and works so hard. Likewise, Caitlin is a genius and has wanted to go to Yale from a young age (and she’s actually joined there by Abby’s parallel self). And Abby, who has never tried acting before being forced to take a drama class, is so good that she’s able to land a role in a big budget movie (in fact, she’s so very good that the directors basically offer her the role as soon as she turns up for her audition).
Well, okay then. On the one hand, I like the messages this book posits about how with enough effort it’s possible to accomplish basically whatever you set your mind to. On the other hand, reading this book required a good amount of suspension of disbelief on my part. I can deal with the possibility of parallel universes. At least Miller tries to ground that in some sort of reality/probability. I cannot deal as well with the fact that Abby and basically everyone she knows is incredibly gifted/talented/lucky. And Abby is beyond special, as she’s the only one who retains memories of her past life before the cosmic collision. Every other person has no idea their pasts are being rewritten, as they simply acquire their parallel self’s memories. Everyone except for Abby. It would have been difficult to tell the story if Abby is not aware of her parallel self and changing life, but having all these other reasons why only Abby’s life is super special made this book hard to swallow at times.
Still, I enjoyed how the book also chooses to focus on an extremely driven protagonist. Abby has goals for her life and she’s willing to do just about anything to accomplish them. Her best friend Caitlin may be gorgeous, but she also has a passion for science and plans on becoming a scientist. The relationship between Abby and Caitlin is very well done and one of the stronger aspects of this book. A large portion of the book is actually devoted to the nuances of their friendship, which was wonderful. I also liked Abby’s growth through their friendship and through a bit of personal soul-searching on her end.
Parallel is ostensibly about a girl who loses control of her life as the decisions of a parallel self from her past have major implications on her future life. Over the course of the novel Abby has to learn not only how to adapt to a changing life (where she’s the only one with memories of the world prior to these changes), but to also decide what things are most important and worth ensuring that they remain part of her life, regardless of what decisions her parallel self makes. That’s it in a nutshell if readers choose to look at it on a superficial level. What concerns me more is the sort of messages it promotes on a deeper level.
If readers look past Abby’s little decisions here and there to spite her past parallel self and maintain a friendship with Caitlin, there’s another message that can be found. Sure, by the end of the novel Abby makes peace with herself – both with her current self and her parallel self, realizing that she is both of them and they are both her. She realizes that her friendship with Caitlin is strong enough to outlast whatever trials life throws at them. She gains an appreciation for people and activities she may never have otherwise. But by the end, what the book really hinges on is Abby’s romantic life. None of these other factors end up determining Abby’s decisions as much as the romance does. The big revelation she makes at the end of the novel? Purely romance-related.
Other, more empowering messages can be found in Parallel, but the fact that the story ultimately hinges on romantic decisions left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Nothing’s wrong with the love interests of either Abby or her parallel self, but her revelations about her relationships felt like they undermined many of the other conclusions she comes to.
Despite my qualms, Parallel is still an interesting book. It has many aspects that I did enjoy, and I enjoyed the process of reading it. Ultimately, I think this is a case where I just wanted different things out of the story than what it provided me with. If you don’t think my reservations would bother you, then please go ahead and give it a chance. There’s definitely an audience for this book, but I cannot count myself among it.
Rating: 2.5 stars