“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” wrote Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin in A Dance With Dragons. “The man who never reads lives only one.” As someone who has lived and ended more than a thousand lives in his story so far, Martin knows what he’s talking about.
But something interesting has happened in the decade since Martin wrote those words. There has been a sudden surge of what we might call multiple lives fiction: novels where the main character experiences a good chunk of her existence on repeat. A number of these stories are headed for our screens, meaning viewers will get a significant boost in their own quests to live a thousand lives.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
Just to be clear, this new trend in multiple-life fiction is not the same as Groundhog Day-style time loop narratives where a character simply lives the same day over and over. There were already plenty of those. Nor are we talking about reincarnation stories, where the same character is reborn as someone else, although there has been an uptick of those too. Same goes for Sliding Doors-type tales, where a mere two possible worlds are played out.
No, all of the novels assembled below give their characters three or (usually many) more attempts to put right whatever went wrong on the last go-around. Most were bestsellers or award-winners and are well worth your time. Invariably, something about their situations sent a chill down my spine. And with one exception, they were all written and published in the last 10 years, with the latest (and one of the best) arriving at the end of April 2021.
What does it say about our era, that we crave these kinds of tales? Maybe it reflects increasingly chaotic lives and perfectionist attitudes. With more choices at our fingertips than ever before, we frequently fret about all the paths we could take, the careers we could have, the partners we could choose. We’re extra keen to maximize our loves and minimize our losses. Or maybe we just have shorter attention spans. Trained by video games, we expect books to let their characters re-spawn too.
Either way, in order of publication, here’s a comprehensive list for anyone who wants to live the most lives for their book bucks. (Plus some extra-credit recommendations for those Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors and reincarnation novel categories.)
1. Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)
Elevator pitch: Jeff Winston has a life-ending heart attack in 1988, then wakes up age 18 in 1963. He relives his life many times, but every time it gets a little shorter. The good news: He soon meets Pamela, who is experiencing the same thing.
Quick review: This is the grandaddy of multiple life stories, a wonderful wish-fulfillment narrative that won the World Fantasy Award for best novel. Jeff and Pamela do just about everything you’d imagine doing in the 1960s and 1970s if you had foreknowledge — like trying to stop the JFK assassination, or hiring young unknowns George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to make a special effects blockbuster for you.
Chilling detail: There are plenty in the book, but none as chilling as the fact that Grimwood was in the middle of writing a sequel when he himself died of a heart attack.
On screen: Warner Bros. bought the rights, Ben Affleck and Robert Zemeckis were said to be in discussions to star and direct respectively — but there’s been no word on development since 2011. Get on it, WB!
Elevator pitch: Ursula Todd is born in England in 1910 — and immediately dies, strangled by her umbilical cord. Or does she? In her next go-around, the doctor arrives in time to snip it. Each life that follows is a little longer than the last, as Ursula slowly becomes aware that she’s done this all before.
Quick review: Not just one of the best multiple life novels, but one of the best 21st century novels period. You feel as if you’re living and dying right alongside Ursula, and the effect stays with you for years after you close the book. Plus she gets to kill Hitler at least once, so that’s nice. It’s no wonder Atkinson wrote another (non-multiple life) novel starring the Todd family.
Chilling detail: The number of times Ursula has to die from the 1918 influenza outbreak before she realizes the family shouldn’t go to a superspreader event will send a shiver down your spine. Especially if you happen to have recently survived a pandemic yourself.
On screen: Todd family fans, rejoice! The BBC is filming an adaptation as of spring 2021.
Elevator pitch: One unnamed woman born on the cusp of the 20th century lives her life five times, unaware that it is happening again. First she dies as a baby in rural Austria, then in her twenties in Vienna, her thirties in the Soviet Union, her sixties in East Berlin, and her nineties in post-reunification Germany.
Quick review: The similarity to Life After Life is entirely coincidental; Erpenbeck, a former East Berliner herself, wrote this in Germany at around the same time. It is much shorter than Atkinson’s book — more like poetry than prose in places — but also spends more time considering the consequences of each death on family members. The subtle ending suggests that the longest life is not always the best.
Chilling detail: As a naive young communist, the woman is shot after writing a “self-criticism” report, the kind that was required of millions who died in Stalin’s purges. The narrator then rewinds the clock and shows the only sequence of officials’ desks for the report to land on that would allow her to live.
Elevator pitch: Harry is an orphan, born in 1919, who remembers and uses his time-looped lives to become ridiculously well-educated. Then he discovers the Cronus Club, a secret global group for people like him. Its younger members are sending a warning back to the older ones: With every life they relive, the end of the world is getting closer.
Quick review: If you like the idea of knotty time-travel drama with a dash of James Bond, you’ll love Harry August. The story spans 20th-century history, and it has something most of these multiple-life books lack: an antagonist. Harry’s relationship with his frenemy and fellow big brain Vincent Rankis is the driving force of the novel, and the only problem is that it doesn’t kick in until the second half.
Chilling detail: You can kill Cronus Club members for good if they give up the details of exactly when and where they were born, and you can also make them forget their former lives by electrically wiping their brains. This means Harry endures a lot of torture, physically and psychologically.
On screen: Maze Runner director Wes Ball recently signed up to helm a movie adaptation. Spielberg will produce. Good luck squeezing this complex tale into two hours, folks.
Elevator pitch: Think Sliding Doors with one extra alternate reality. A Cambridge student called Eva crashes her bike in 1958. A student called Jim sees her and rescues the bike, twice; once, he doesn’t. The extra twist is that only one of the times they meet does an immediate romantic spark happen. We follow all three realities through to the year 2012.
Quick review: Nice idea, shame about the execution. We whiplash between each of the three timelines so fast that it’s hard to keep track of which one we’re in. Maybe that’s the reason why Sliding Doors (and book-based alt-reality romances like The Post-Birthday World and Maybe In Another Life) maxed out at two worlds. The reader has to do enough work to keep them straight.
Chilling detail: Still, the power of all multiple-world romances lies in the wondering about that crux moment of meeting or not meeting. The difference is so minute, so out of proportion to the effect. You swerve on your bike to avoid a dog, or you run over a nail and get a puncture, and your life is forever altered. It’s hard not to ruminate on similar moments in our own histories.
Elevator pitch: A man finds himself at a mansion in the middle of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, forced to solve the riddle of Evelyn’s death by inhabiting the minds of multiple guests on repeat.
Quick review: Saddled with an incredibly twisty plot that you’ll need the accompanying map to follow, 7 1/2 Deaths reads more like a description of a video game (indeed, the author was inspired by a “lifelong diet” of video games) mashed up with Quantum Leap and Clue. With so much going on, it’s hard to really connect with any of the characters. It’s still worth sticking around for the ending, which takes a very sudden Black Mirror-type turn. Just a shame that wasn’t foreshadowed in any way.
Chilling detail: The hero is shadowed by a mysterious figure in a “plague doctor” mask, as well as a murderous footman who kills many of the guests in a particularly grisly manner.
On screen: Netflix announced in December it’s adapting the book into a show. It’ll take a lot of episodes to unpack the many lives our protagonist is forced to live.
7. Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (2019)
Elevator pitch: Roger, a boy in Boston, and Dodger, a girl in Palo Alto, discover that they have a telepathic connection. As they grow into language and math prodigies, the pair find that their combined skills allow them to manipulate reality by going back to earlier points in their lives.
Quick review: There’s a lot going on in this award-winning fantasy novel. Roger and Dodger are actually twins created by evil alchemists who are trying to find a path to the Up-and-Under, a mystical world described in a Wizard of Oz-like children’s book (which McGuire also wrote). But Roger and Dodger’s timeline resetting is easily the most interesting part. You’ll find yourself wishing that you too had the ability to set a save point in your life.
Chilling detail: Roger discovers he was adopted, and announces the fact to his parents — who call in thugs to capture him. Dodger is able to reset time just as they’re on the threshold of his childhood bedroom, and a now-sinister family dinner passes without incident.
Elevator pitch: Hit with a serious case of hopelessness, Nora Seed decides to die by suicide. But before she can do so, she finds herself in a magical library where every book is a possible life she might have lived. Opening a book transports her to that life, and any sense of disappointment in that life brings her back to the library.
Quick review: Anyone who has found themselves consumed by thoughts of what might have been (and whom among us hasn’t?) will find Nora’s story incredibly cathartic. You sort of know how it’s going to end, but Haig manages to take us there in a way that zeroes in on the very human emotions of love and loss without coming across as too preachy.
Chilling detail: Not so much chilling as heart-wrenching — an early chapter deals with the death of Nora’s cat, and why it was not, as she assumed, her fault. Get the tissues ready.
On screen: StudioCanal announced a movie adaptation in 2020, a big year for multiple-life movie deals.
Elevator pitch: Thora and Santi, international students, have a meet-cute one night in Cologne. One of them dies in an accident shortly after. But that’s not the end. They meet again, at wildly differing ages, in life after life, and have to figure out why they are trapped in the city, seemingly doomed to live on repeat.
Quick review: You might expect a YA romance, but that’s not what this is about. The one life where Thora and Santi hook up and have a kid together is out of the way pretty early on, outnumbered by the ones where they have other partners. Instead, it’s a hymn to friendship — and a countdown to another Black Mirror-type twist that is nicely foreshadowed this time. Thora’s focus on scientific explanations for their predicament contrasts nicely with Santi’s faith-based mystical reasoning, making this a breezy read that’s surprisingly philosophical.
Chilling detail: It’s not all lovey-dovey friendship. Thora and Santi get so frustrated with their looped lives that they find increasingly desperate ways to end them — including murdering each other.
On screen: The book is out April 27, but I for one wouldn’t be surprised to see a filmed version announced in the near future.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver (2010) — a darker, YA version of Groundhog Day in which a teenager relives the last day of her life six times. Also a 2017 film starring Zoey Deutsch.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (2016) — A college professor falls down a multiverse rabbit hole after being abducted and waking up in another reality. A TV show based on the book is now in the works at Apple.
Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore (2017) — A Neil Gaiman / Terry Pratchett / Douglas Adams-style comedy in which a man named Milo lives 10,000 lives, but refuses to ascend to nirvana because he’s fallen in love with the female personification of death.
The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer (2018) — Two men infected with the plague in 14th century England get to live the remaining days of their lives on fast forward, one new century per day.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore (2020) — When does one life feel like multiple lives? When you’re living it in the wrong order, one random year at a time. A delightfully warm YA book that has a lot to say about family, friends and the mistakes we make with both.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab (2020) — Another way to feel like you’re living multiple lives: make a pact with the devil and never die. The only catch is that no one will ever remember you once you’re out of sight. That’s what happens to Addie across the centuries in this stunning novel by a veteran fantasy author, who manages to capture a crucial aspect of systemic misogyny. Especially when Addie meets a man who has the opposite problem: Everyone becomes immediately obsessed with him.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things by Lev Grossman (2021) — A short story from the author of The Magicians is also one of the best Amazon Prime original movies of the year. Best of all, it’s the first Groundhog Day-style narrative where the characters actually reference Groundhog Day.