July 12, 2008KR Blog

The Problem/Joy of Choice

If you believe in astrology, then you can credit my lifelong indecision with the fact that I’m a Libra, forever weighing my options. I can’t decide which movie to watch, which route to take to work, what to eat for dinner, which stories to revise–or which book to read next. Two weeks ago, I started reading two books at the same time, hoping that I’d figure out which one to read exclusively after I’d sampled a couple of chapters.

Thus, I found myself reading two books about choice. In Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, the protagonist has to make a small but crucial decision about her romantic life. Shriver allows the reader to witness the consequences of both decisions. There are two of each chapter for almost the entire novel–parallel lives that are equally complicated, exhilarating, and disappointing.

In Heather McElhatton’s Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-Over Novel I (or some female “you”) become the protagonist. In the beginning I have to choose to either go to college or travel around the world. Much like the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books from my youth, this book required me to make decisions about the kind of life I mean to live. I have to develop my own character; I have to trust my instincts. One small but crucial decision could be the difference between getting shot in the face in LA and growing old with the love of my life in Galway.

The problem of choice–sometimes deceptively simple choice–is the problem of everyday living, but it’s also the problem of creating a life for a character. What can a writer do to make her characters’ lives worth following? As I read Pretty Little Mistakes I was disappointed in myself when I chose to do the “smart” thing, the “right” thing, the “safe” thing.

It is interesting to note the decisions the characters make in both texts have no real bearing on how their lives conclude. Each human life, after all, ends the same way–with death (sometimes painful, wretched death, but death all the same). Still, I felt an overwhelming desire for Shriver’s Irina to choose the dangerous lover, for McElhatton’s “you” to do all the exciting things I didn’t do the summer after high school graduation. That sense of urgency didn’t come from a desire to arrive safely at an ending; I wanted the story, that series of steps that carry the characters further away from their beginning.

So maybe I can take comfort in the idea that the choices we make won’t affect our inevitable ending. Or maybe the smallest decision will plunge us into new and terrifying lives. I can’t decide.