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As if by Accident

by Julie Johnston

It is somewhat frightening to contemplate how vulnerable we are to the vagaries of fate, chance, accident. Children’s author Julie Johnston’s engaging novel (her first for adults) about two people whose paths cross in the most accidental, coincidental fashion explores this odd fact of human lives. Johnston feels that even though we may be at the mercy of the fates, such vulnerability is something we should relax about – even cherish and celebrate – since, for the most part, control over our lives is essentially an illusion.

Val is the rather befuddled heroine, whose husband has died in a traffic accident for which Val blames herself. Her subsequent feelings of guilt, combined with her ambivalent feelings toward the marriage itself, drive her to something of a mid-life crisis. Gus, a has-been Hollywood actor and screenwriter, has his own grief to deal with in the deaths of both his brother and mother. His survivor guilt has more to do with the mental illness in his family, and his torment centres on doubts about his talent as a writer.

The novel is well written, the characters vivid and sympathetic. The plot structure, which keeps the the two protagonists apart until the end of the story and keeps the focus more on the seeking than the finding, effectively mirrors the theme of lives changed by seemingly arbitrary yet life-changing happenings.

However, if this is the main plot point, Johnston too often allows the story to meander and go off the rails. For example, it is unclear how the lengthy yet puzzling story of the incestuous relationship between Val’s husband and his sister relates to the main plot, other than to create yet another example of the serendipitous meeting of the two main characters.