The Heavens by Sandra Newman

The HeavensSandra Newman's The Heavens has a touch of The Time Traveller's Wife about it and a touch of the haunting children's novel Charlotte Sometimes. The main characters are Kate and Ben, a young couple who meet in the early 2000s at a New York party held by their wealthy activist friend Sabine. All seems normal, but there are hints that this New York is not quite the one we're fully familiar with. The American president is a female environmentalist, traffic is minimal and the party is 'mostly francophone'.

Ben, a journalist for a trade magazine, immediately falls in love with Kate, a free-spirited artist, and all seems well. Except that when Kate sleeps, she sometimes wakes up in Tudor England, where she's not Kate any more but Emilia, the wife of a court musician and the mistress of a wealthy aristocrat. And every time she returns to the twenty-first century, she finds the modern world slightly different to the one she left. There's a different president. The people she knows are the same, but different. Her family situation has changed, and not for the better.

This, needless to say, creates problems. The burden of responsibility takes its toll on Kate and her insistence to others that she is travelling in time and changing the course of history leads to a diagnosis of mental illness. This, in turn, puts a strain on her relationship with Ben. And when she's Emilia, she finds herself championing the career of a young, unknown playwright, Sad Will, whose real name is William Shakespeare.

The Heavens is an intriguing read with an interesting set-up, and at times it's beautifully written, not to mention witty. The problem I have with it, though, is that I loathed almost everyone in it. Ben, Kate, Sabine, their terrible trust-fund-bohemian friends irritated me intensely. As such, I didn't really care about Ben and Kate's love story or Kate's plight. Artist Kate, who despite having an apartment sleeps on Sabine's roof terrace every night and "[doesn't] think life is exactly real when you're working for money" is far too much of a manic pixie dream girl to be remotely credible, and Ben is insipid and somewhat petulant. It's fair to say that their circle of friends are treated with a strong degree of satirical ridicule by the author - something they absolutely deserve - but as Ben and Kate are part of that circle and accepting of their behaviour, this makes it hard to take them seriously too.

I also struggled a little with the sections of the book in which Kate is Emilia, as the attempts to make the dialogue sound plausible for the setting felt rather strained to me. It's a fine a line between creating a general atmosphere of the Tudor period and sounding like Mr Claypole, and I felt distanced from the characters and what was happening to them.

My final issue with The Heavens is that the idea of time travel and its implications, and the notion of the 'butterfly effect' are only sketchily laid out. The premise is there, but it's not developed beyond the barest bones, which felt like a terrible cop-out to me. There's also the notion that perhaps Kate actually does have schizophrenia after all, which again, would be a terrible cop-out and also, in the context of Kate's characterisation as a romantically unstable, quirky beauty, a fairly tasteless cliché.

All this is a pity, because when The Heavens is good, it's very good. There are some beautiful descriptions, some thought-provoking moments of profound sadness, and at times it's very funny. But I didn't feel that this was enough to compensate for this novel's shortcomings.