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Book Reviews

If A Russian Doll Looked Into A Black Mirror ... You'd Have This Novel

Some of the promotions for The Other Me, Sarah Zachrich Jeng's debut thriller, reference the hit British series Black Mirror, in which modern technology frequently leaves its human hoist by their own petards. That works, because Jeng's story centers on a company known as gnii (pronounced "Genie") that writes time-travel code, code that slams protagonist Kelly Holter from a disappointing 29th-birthday celebration to a different 29th-birthday celebration, one in which she has a husband, new family members, and a wholly different career path.

But The Other Me put this reviewer more in mind of Russian Doll, the Netflix show starring Natasha Lyonne where her character Nadia goes back and forth between lives as she tries mightily to figure out what she needs to do in order to return to the one she loves. Jeng employs a light hand with the wholly imaginary tech and a skillful touch with the huge amount of whiplash Kelly experiences; never has a down-at-heel Midwestern artist been involved in so much intrigue.

Things start out on that aforementioned 29th birthday, which Kelly is spending at her best friend Linnea's smash gallery debut in Chicago. She woozily wanders to the bathroom — and somehow travels to a celebration of her birthday at Luigi's Restaurant in Davis City, Michigan, where she grew up. In this reality, she's married to a high-school pal Eric Hyde and has a merry, messy family group around the table. She's not thrilled about this development, but she also doesn't understand what's happening, resigning herself to acting as her own private investigator, figuring out not only how her marriage works, but what kind of work Eric actually does at gnii.

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At the same time, she's plagued by memories of her "other" life, combined with regrets about how she squandered its opportunities. Her life as Kelly Hyde (Jeng must have used that surname deliberately, for its echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story) seems pretty great. She and Eric have a beautiful house and loads of family and friends in Davis City. Not to mention Eric's pretty buff, completely unlike his scrawny adolescent self. Maybe she should stick with this version and stop fighting for the past?

It's when Kelly reckons with the past that The Other Me stays strongest. Jeng's light hand with the tech helps, because it doesn't get in the way of that reckoning, but it's also obvious that there's really no way to delve deeper into the tech. It's wholly imaginary, and this is no sci-fi story. No wonder Kelly's visits to the gnii headquarters all involve the company's tricky façade constructed to look like a pastoral farmhouse (except pixelated onto 3D glass) and its reception area; she never gets past the gatekeepers, which makes a reader wonder if there's nothing behind the curtain, as it were.

The strongest section of the novel involves Kelly and Linnea. At one point, Kelly decides to evade Eric (who knows she's been making inquiries into gnii) and head to Chicago to find out if her dearest friend remembers her, in this alternate life. The answer at first is no, and that's where we most clearly see Kelly's grief in her dilemma. While later developments do ramp up the action, it's sad to see Jeng abandon what could have been a more nuanced story of close friendship and ambition. So many of have our friendships are tested by talented or lucky besties. Perhaps instead of acting as a plot device to give Kelly an accomplice, her bond with Linnea might have been the plot hinge — instead of cishet male desire.

Still, toward that finale there's also a lot of crazy action to keep readers turning pages, and it's a lot of fun to see a woman character figuring things out to save her own life. Or should that be lives? Like both Black Mirror and Russian Doll, Sarah Zachrich Jeng's The Other Me resists categorization, blending the impossible with the probable with the downright plausible. Kelly Holter has some choices to make no matter where she winds up, and that may be the most important message her creator has to impart. It will be interesting to see how Jeng combines psychology and thrills in her next book, especially if she keeps her characters' emotions in mind.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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