For lifetimes, Daniel has chased Sophia, his one true love. That's the achingly romantic premise of My Name is Memory. But if you spend centuries striving for a normal life with one person, doesn't that sap the mystery and intrigue from reincarnation?
Ann Brashares is most famous as the author of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. With My Name is Memory, her first novel for adults, she's decided to tackle the tricky subject of reincarnation, with mixed results. Her tale is well-plotted, plainly but confidently written, and very, very sweet. But this tale of grand romantic passion strips much of the awe from the concept of recycled souls.
Some slight spoilers ahead.
First we meet Lucy, a high school senior nursing a serious crush on the broad-shouldered, laconic Daniel. She's college-bound with a bright future. But it's not so much ambition that drives her as a desire to spare her parents any worry. That's because her sister was the wild child, the one with the problems, the one who burned out and passed away too young. So her hopeless daydreams are a bit out of character. But she gets dolled up for the senior dance, there's some sort of altercation in the parking lot, and her mysteriously omnipresent suitor shows up to administer medicinal whiskey.
Unfortunately, he turns out to be something of a weirdo: He tells her how much he's thought of her, gives her a big old kiss, and asks her with a disturbing intensity whether she "remembers." He also insists on calling her Sophia. Lucy freaks and bails. When she asks around on a visit home from college a few weeks later, someone tells her Daniel jumped off a bridge. At the risk of spoilers, he hasn't in fact taken his life. He's just jumped ahead a couple of educational steps to work as a doctor at a nearby VA hospital. But mostly, he moons over Lucy and wonders when he'll get another shot.
In the meantime, we're treated to a recitation of his life ‘til now. It turns out that many people are reincarnated, but very few remember much about their previous lives. Daniel, on the other, remembers everything and refuses to let go of anything. Death is temporary, and his existence essentially stretches all the way back to North Africa, circa 541. That's when he first met the girl who now goes by Lucy. They're tragically separated, and so he spends a millennium and a half chasing her, trying to seduce her into remembering their time together. They never quit click in time, but he just won't give up.
The barriers to their relationship are comfortingly cosmic: He has to convince her that he's not crazy, that they really are reincarnated lovers who've been circling each other since the time of Byzantium. Their biggest problem is that his villainous brother Joaquim keeps popping up to cause them trouble. That's kind of a mess, but compared to the problems that real lovers face, these fundamentally external threats are a cakewalk. (Forget reincarnation — call me when your boyfriend gets a job in another city.) It's as escapist a romance as you'll ever read.
First off, our heroine: She's not entirely sure what she wants in life, and there's charm in that uncertainty. Lucy begins the book as a bright go-getter, but Daniel throws her into a tailspin. One minute he's just a cute boy, then he gets all weird at a party and suddenly there's a psychic telling her she should have "remembered" and she has these half-memories of World War I and everything is very confusing! But it's actually appealing how firmly she resists believing his ridiculousness. You want them together, because it's obviously twue wove, but her hesitancy shows refreshingly good sense. Her sections keep the novel grounded and provide some surprising emotional realism.
When we're not with Lucy, we're jumping around Daniel's life and times, which can be jarring. It's not just the third-person narrator telling us about Daniel; it's also Daniel narrating his own, history-hopping lives. That's a lot of time spent in the head of a character who can come across as a bit... emo. Of course, these days, angst comes standard with immortals these days (see also: every vampire novel of the last decade). And it's a legitimate interpretation of what thousands of years worth of memories, including dying over and over, might do to a person.
But what's weird is how unmysterious everything is. Daniel is completely sick with love for Lucy (or Sophia, as he insists on calling her), and it's thoroughly romantic. That said, he's kind of like Edward Cullen: All that life experience, and he just wants to hang out in high school and moon over the love of his lives. It makes him seem awfully pedestrian, and this seems to be Brasheres' point: Puzzling over cosmic questions won't make you any happier. Find someone who loves you and let the rest sort itself out.
In the end, despite its mystical premise, My Name is Memory is a sweet, charming, unambitious love story. It's not Wuthering Heights and it's not even Twilight, but the kind of book that you breeze through on vacation. You'll close it with a sigh and pass it along to a friend, because it's not one you'll reread.