William Morrow, 1986, 311 pages
In 1988, 43-year-old Jeff Winston died of a heart attack. But then he awoke, and it was 1963; Jeff was 18 all over again, his memory of the next two decades intact. This time around, Jeff would gain all the power and wealth he never had before. This time around he'd know how to do it right. Until next time.
Who hasn't fantasized about what you'd do if you could relive your youth but still knowing everything you know now?
The comparison to Groundhog Day is inevitable, as this novel (which came out several years before Bill Murray's film) has the same basic premise: a guy keeps dying and waking up in the past, and has to relive his life all over again. In Replay, however, Jeff Winston doesn't just relive one day over and over again — he relives 25 years.
When he dies of a heart attack in 1988, Winston (a middle-manager in a failed, childless marriage) finds himself back in college, the year is 1963, and he's 18 again. After going through the predictable stages of shock, disbelief, and wtf?, he makes good use of his recollection of horse races and baseball games, and quickly builds up a large stake with gambling winnings. He parlays this into a company called "Future, Inc." which makes all the right investments, and by the time 1988 rolls around again, Jeff is fabulously wealthy, and married to a boring, materialistic woman from another super-rich family, the one bright spot in his life being his daughter.
Then he has a heart attack at the same time he did last time, even though he took excellent care of his health and had just been given an excellent bill of health by a cardiologist. Once again he wakes in 1963, except now he remembers the daughter who will never even exist this time around.
The premise is inherently intriguing, and most of the book is about Jeff's journey through multiple lifetimes and the pain and losses and wisdom he accrues each time. Frustratingly, even when he finally meets another "Rewinder," the two of them spend remarkably little time experimenting with or trying to figure out the parameters of their strange existence. Jeff makes one attempt in his first "rewind" to stop the JFK assassination, but when some other assassin just replaces Lee Harvey Oswald, he concludes that he can't really change history. And both he and Pamela (the woman he meets who is also rewinding through time) seem to take this for granted until they finally get the idea of trying to find other "Rewinders," and in their third or fourth iteration, go public. This time, once the government realizes that they really are able to predict future events (although no one believes their "past lives" story), things go as terribly as you might expect. So it seems they can change history, but when they die and rewind next time, they decide it was a bad idea.
This was an excellent story full of life and nostalgia and regret and love and everything you think you'd feel if you had to go through what Jeff and Pamela do. As a science fiction novel, I found it a little unsatisfying, both because of Jeff and Pamela's relative passivity (they just kind of accept that this weird thing happens to them and make the best of it) and because even when they do find out they aren't the only ones, they really don't make much of an effort to find more Rewinders. I think this was because the author wanted to keep the story focused on the characters, and the effect on them of living all these multiple lives, and not make it more of a heavy speculative fiction novel. Still, there seemed like endless story possibilities left untouched.
That said, I really liked Replay and felt like within the parameters created by the story, it worked very well. The ending, and the final resolution for the main characters, made perfect sense, as much as it was also a little disappointing and anti-climactic.
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