An underwhelming treatment of a great concept
Replay by Ken Grimwood was gifted to me some years back and on a trip to the Sawtooth wilderness, I finally got around to reading it. The book has a great set up — the main protagonist, Jeff, is having a midlife crisis and filled with ennui and regret, dies in mid-conversation with his wife. He wakes up in his 18-year-old body in 1963, his head full of memories of his old life, and realizes he has a chance to start over again. And off he goes, making insider bets and investments that earn him millions and soon carving out a new life, determined to avoid all the old mistakes that doomed him to a lackluster life and troubled marriage. He achieves incredible wealth, only to die again 25 years later and start the cycle over again. And again. And again.
Each time, he tries different ways of making his life meaningful — love, sex, drugs, parenthood, selfless acts, etc. Along the way, he meets and falls for a woman having the same rebirth experience, though slightly out of sync with his. Then together they try to figure out what’s happening to them, and to navigate their growing romance that is bedeviled by tangled timelines.
Grimwood was a journalist (he died in 2003 … at least in THIS timeline) and it shows, both in the great command of history and world events (the protagonist, also in the media, uses this to his full advantage), and in the stiff, matter-of-fact writing style. That utilitarian technique can sometimes be used to great effect, but not in this book, at least not for me. I was never inspired by the prose, never really cared what happened to the main characters because I didn’t get to know them except in the broadest of strokes. Other than the first cycle, when Jeff is confused and stumbling through this new reality and trying to act normal around his co-ed girlfriend, the rest of book felt like a journalist reporting dispassionately on mysterious events. The story was like a stone skipping over the surface of a deep, swirling mystery, and I wanted it to dip below the surface.
Still, Replay kept me reading along to the end, though skimming huge chunks, because I wanted to see how the set-up was explained, why Jeff and a few others experienced this time bending, and what he ultimately learned from it all. I won’t give away any spoilers, but the book left a lot unanswered so the journey was less than rewarding, and I think it’s safe to say even those who travel through time face the same existential angst as those of us stuck here in the now, and that finding ways to make your life meaningful in the present, and finding ways to be you authentic self, and treating those you love with honesty and care, always beat dying with a heart burdened by regrets, no matter how many times you die.