It should have been so easy to be happy.
I have a book hangover. I loved Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot. I mean, I really loved it, and I feel sort of cheated that I didn’t get to say goodbye to its cast of characters and wish them all well before having to return this book to the library. I didn’t anticipate that I would like this book so much, and I almost didn’t read it, but I am ever so grateful that I did. What Alice Forgot is sneakily thoughtful, and the question it sets out to answer is more profound than it first seems at the book’s beginning. What would it be like to confront your current life with your past self?
Alice has suffered a serious concussion after falling off a stationary bike at the gym, causing a rather jarring memory loss. Alice remembers nothing of the past ten years. She thinks she is still pregnant with her first child, and that she and her husband, Nick, are still in the throes of a young and carefree love. We being to discover, however, that this isn’t the case and follow Alice through her own journey to understand what has become of herself and her life. There is an innocence to Alice trying to understand why she’s no longer the happy-go-lucky self of the past, but nothing in her discovery feels cliche. As Alice pieces together her life, her burgeoning understanding feels honest and raw, as do the responses of those around her. I loved her children’s responses to her, and the way her family allows her to be Young Alice in a tentative, but patient, way. Alice is allowed to rediscover her life in her own time; no one foists their own interpretations or desires onto her. Mostly it was this examination of how time and our evolving selves, particularly within the context of relationships, changes our expectations of our lives that I found so intriguing.
I liked feeling like I was inside Alice’s head, and Moriarty does a great job of allowing us as the reader to experience Alice’s rebirth with her. I found myself being torn between rooting for old, carefree Alice to stick around, pondering the value of her not regaining her memory, but also wanting her to gain it back to complete her transformation. The biggest looming question is why her marriage with Nick has failed, and why they can’t recover their adolescent love. Alice frustratingly responds to Nick through the rose colored lens of their beginning and he gently responds to her through the weathered understanding of their future, but Moriarty asks and answers all the right and necessary questions of them.
Don’t you think we should try again? For them? For the children? Actually, not just for them. For us. For the old us.
Even if it is tempting to want to allow Alice the option to redo the past ten years, Moriarty doesn’t let Alice escape her life. But, at the same time she does allow her injury to give her a new perspective on herself and her life, and in the end Alice is able to find a better balance between her old and new selves.
Finally she stopped resisting and called a truce. Young Alice was allowed to stay as long as she didn’t eat too much chocolate. Now it seemed like she could twist the lens on her life and see it from two entirely different perspectives. The perspective of her younger self. Her younger, sillier, innocent self. And her older, wiser, more cynical and sensible self. Any maybe sometimes Young Alice had a point.
Ultimately Alice realizes that life isn’t so black/white, good/bad. Maybe there never was an idealized way life should have unfolded, but rediscovering Young Alice has let her see the good in the past ten years that had gotten buried under a hard shell. For every bad memory of Nick she can also see a good one. She is also afforded the opportunity to get to know her children as unique (and unknown) people, removed from her relationship to them as a hyper-scheduled, over-regulatory mother.
It wasn’t just that her memories of the last ten years were back. It was that her true self, as formed by those ten years, was back. As seductive as it might have been to erase the grief and pain of the last ten years, it was also a life. Young Alice was a fool. A sweet, innocent fool. Young Alice hadn’t experienced ten years of living.
What Alice Forgot also touches on Alice’s relationships with her sister, mother, and honorary grandmother figure. These subplots are equally interesting and serve the arch of the novel well. In the same way that Alice confronts her old/new relationship with Nick, she must also confront her changed relationship with her sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s side story is told in snippets via a journal Elizabeth is keeping as an assignment for therapy, so we get insight both to Elizabeth and Alice’s pasts and presents in these entries.
The end of the novel was surprising in the best way possible without seeming fantastical or contrived. It’s hard not to put down this book and ponder your own like through a younger version of yourself. Alice, however, is afforded the opportunity to have those impossible conversations that we’d probably want to have. She gets to ask what happened, and ultimately she gets an answer.
Loved it. I did not want to leave the story or Alice’s world. I genuinely cared about all the characters and found the book subtly deep. I would read this book again and am confident rereading it would feel like visiting an old friend.
Added bonus that this is an older book, so you could probably score a copy of it at your local library without having to wait.