I couldn’t wait to read my friend Lauren Miller’s debut novel, Parallel. I was already wowed by what I knew of Lauren’s story, that she’d written the first draft of this book during her daughter’s infancy. Then, I read Parallel and found it an entirely engrossing, tremendously fun experience.
Parallel is a compulsively readable story that combines the tremendous fun of life in one’s late teens with huge, earth-shaking (literally) concepts about time, meaning, and the order (or lack thereof) that exists in the universe. Parallel tells the story of Abby Barnes, a college senior, who experiences in a unique way the theory that parallel universes exist running alongside ours, populated with parallel versions of ourselves, making different choices, walking different paths.
Parallel‘s central characters are interesting and relatable: Abby’s best friend Caitlin, a brilliant science nerd in a gorgeous blonde fashionista’s body, Tyler, their mutual, handsome, funny best friend, and Dr. Mann, the Nobel-prize winning absent-minded professor whose theories about the entanglement of parallel universes guide the book’s narrative.
More than anything else, I finished Parallel thinking about both the universal human need to plan our lives and the fallacy of that instinct. For someone whose blog is called A Design So Vast, there was much to ponder, also, about the interplay of order and chaos in our universe. Abby’s mother is an expert on Seurat, and the metaphor of pointilism, where a field of seemingly random dots up close crystallizes into a clear image from far away, recurs throughout the book. At one point, looking at a Seurat painting, Abby observes:
“Up close, all you see are the pieces, strewn about, heaped on top of each other. Total disarray. But step away, and a picture takes shape. When you make sense of the chaos, the chaos disappears. Or maybe, what looked at first like chaos never was.”
Another piece of art that figures prominently in Parallel is Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia. Abby tries out for a play at Yale and is crushed not to be cast. But then the director surprises her by saying he’d had an ulterior motive in not casting her, becuase he thinks she would be perfect for the part of Thomasina in the next play that’s going up: Arcadia. Startled, Abby reflects on Thomasina, a character she has always loved but who has taken on new resonance since she has begun experiencing the entanglement of her parallel lives. Thomasina, “…a young girl who believed that everything – including the future – could be reduced to an equation. Maybe this is part of the formula.”
Miller doesn’t entirely let us off the hook: she reminds us also that individual agency has an enormous role in shaping our stories. In one scene, Abby watches her roommate heartbroken over a breakup for which Abby’s parallel bears some responsibility and thinks, with anguish: “Everything we do matters.”
Ultimately, though Parallel reminds us that our choices help direct our path, it celebrates most of all the mystery behind the way the pointillist dots that make up the story of our lives coalesce into a clear picture. Towards the end of the book, Abby reflects on something Dr. Mann said early in the book: “You are a uniquely created being with a transcendent soul. A soul whose yearnings can’t be predicted or effectively explained, whose composition can’t be quantified, whose true nature remains a mystery, as mysterious as it ever was.”
The last scene of Parallel draws together the various strands of narrative in a neat, surprising conclusion. Abby’s thoughts emphasize the primacy of right now over someday, and remind us of the power of trusting that the universe will take care of us even when things seem chaotic and scary.
“Suddenly, it all makes sense. The path doesn’t dictate the destination. There are detours to destiny, and sometimes that detour is a shortcut. But it’s more than that. Sitting here, in this seat, Bret on one side, Josh on the other – wedged between my past and my future – is exactly where I’m supposed to be. It doesn’t matter how I got here or where I’m going when I leave. The point is, I’m here. In this place, with these people. Te dots coming together so exquisitely, crystallizing into something greater than the sum of its parts. All of the past made whole in the present. The picture of my life is more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. More beautiful than I ever could’ve planned.”
The design is vast, but oh, how it is beautiful. I highly recommend Lauren Miller’s debut, which is as thought-provoking as it is un-put-downably fun to read.
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