In ‘A Possible Life’ the total is not greater than the sum of its parts

The subtitle of this newest offering from Sebastian Faulks is “A Novel in Five Parts”. There’s no question about the five parts; in separate sections Faulks tells the stories of five people who live in various places and eras. There’s Geoffrey, a British schoolteacher who experiences the horrors of World War II up close and is never quite the same. There’s Billy, who is a little boy in the mid-19th century when he is sent to a workhouse and ever after is on a desperate quest to fill the empty spaces in his heart and his soul. There’s Elena, living in the Italy of the near-future, who makes a successful scientific career out of her natural inclination toward solitude, except for the one person she lets into her heart. There’s Jeanne, an illiterate and orphaned woman in the early 19th century whose entire adult life is spent caring for someone else’s children. And there’s Anya, whose extraordinary songwriting and singing talent takes her to the pinnacle of success at the end of the 20th century, even as she leaves some shattered hearts in her wake.

If reading that summary leaves you wondering how the five parts tie together into a novel, I can set your mind at ease. They don’t. There are fleeting sentences here and there that imply a mystical connection between one or more of the stories, but nothing ever comes of them and the reader is left with five separate, good-tasting dishes that never come together into a satisfying meal.

The closest Faulks comes to a unifying theory is in Elena’s struggle to quantify scientifically where the human’s sense of self comes from. There’s a great deal of contemplating that we are all just clusters of cells and organic material and when we die we are again reduced to our most basic elements and eventually reformed again into another self. Perhaps we are meant to think of these five wildly different characters as all made from the same cells as they form and re-form through the ages. But that’s just a guess, because Faulks doesn’t offer anything in the way of explanation.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the writing of any of the individual pieces, and I found all them fairly engaging on their own merit. But when I turned the last page on Anya’s story, the only emotion I felt was, “Huh. I guess that’s that, then.” And that doesn’t seem like the emotions a successful project should evoke.

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