The Other Life was a daring novel that challenged the life we know against the life we turned down. Quinn Braverman is keeping two secrets from her loving husband, Lewis. One is that the real reason she chose him over Eugene, her neurotic, semi-famous ex-boyfriend, was to prove to her mother that she could have a happy, stable relationship with the guy next door. The other is that Quinn knows another life exists in which she made the other choice and stayed with Eugene. The two lives run in parallel lines, like highways on opposite sides of a mountain. There, on the other side, the Quinn who stayed with Eugene is speeding through her high-drama, childless life in Manhattan. Here, the Quinn who married Lewis lives in the suburbs, drives a Volvo, and has an adorable young son with another baby on the way. But Quinn can’t have both lives. Soon, she must decide which she really wants—the one she has…or the other life?
I loved the ideas and themes presented in the story and was so thrilled when Ellen agreed to answer some questions about her book.
The Other Life is about returning to the road not taken and exploring the life unlived. Have you ever longed to see what happened on the other road?
Haven’t we all? I think that’s human nature, especially in times of extreme stress. We play the “if only” game, imagining what might have been. What if I hadn’t gotten married? What if we hadn’t bought this house? What if we never had a child? What if I had been there to prevent that accident/suicide/awful mistake? Of course, it’s easy to condemn this line of thinking as counterproductive, but I believe it’s a coping mechanism. There’s only so much grief and anxiety our minds can hold before we need a mental vacation.
In this story Nan makes the ultimate sacrifice for a child, in this case her daughter, Quinn, and her grandchildren. Do you think that kind of love is instinctual or learned?
I think we’re hardwired to make sacrifices for our children. It’s the basest human instinct, and it gets switched on like a spotlight when we have our first child. I guess scientists can explain the chemistry of it, but from a personal perspective, falling in love with my first child was the most dramatically transformative moment of my life. I was flooded with something that seemed to alter my DNA, restructuring every cell. I was no longer just Ellen, I was Max’s mom, and I knew from that moment on every decision I made in life would be informed by that simple fact.
With Nan and Quinn, you brilliantly capture the mother-daughter relationship and the bond that hovers between boundless love and bruising tension. Did you draw from personal experience?
Thanks for that compliment! I can honestly say that my own even-tempered mother is nothing like Nan, but I’ve always been fascinated by the wrenching emotional turmoil of family relationships. I’m not sure there’s anything more interesting—or more human—than the ways in which we are tested by love.
As her daughter straddles parallel universes, Nan wonders whether having an escape route will help Quinn manage life’s difficulties with more grace, or instead taunt her with a decision no one should ever have to make. Is it a blessing or a curse…or something else?
I love this question, because I think it gets to the heart of the book, and I hope readers will explore this issue themselves. What if their life included a portal to what might have been? Would they welcome the possibility to cross from one life to another? Or do they think they would be tortured by the endlessness of the choices they could make?
The Other Life probes the choices we make in life. Do you think there’s a way to avoid the second-guessing that often accompanies them?
No, and I don’t think we should. That constant reexamination of our motives and choices is how we learn and grow. It’s like what Socrates said about the unexamined life.
What genres do you like to read? Why?
I don’t limit myself to any particular genre, but I’m definitely drawn to character-driven stories that take a hard look at human relationships. So a survey of my book shelf would probably reveal more literary and women’s fiction than anything else.
Modern women yearn for balance between work and family. As a writer and mother of three, do you have any advice for them?
For me, it’s a matter of priorities that boils down to a simple equation: Family = first; Work = second; Housework = dead last.
Born in the Bronx, New York to a mixed marriage (her mother was a Democrat, her father a Republican), Ellen understood from an early age that family relationships are a complicated matter. She managed to get through her early years, and by the time she graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a Magna Cum Laude degree in English, she was a registered Democrat and still, remarkably, on speaking terms with her father. The lesson she learned is that nothing is thicker than blood. Except maybe her cousin Cliff. Today, Ellen lives on Long Island with her husband and three children. And while her mother has now joined her father in the remote waters of the far right, her home is the middle ground where the whole family gathers, eats, laughs, loves and sometimes fights. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Learn more about Ellen Meister on her website.