Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
My best friend Rebecca gave this to me thinking it would be right up my alley—and she was correct. I read it while on a plane to visit her in Montréal, and we had some great conversations about Oona Out of Order. There are some obvious comparisons here, particularly to Slaughterhouse-Five. It also reminded me quite a bit of one of the most affecting novels I have ever read, My Real Children. Yet I also think Margarita Montimore has written a book that stands on its own.
Oona, much like Billy Pilgrim from the aforementioned Vonnegut, has become unstuck in time. But her parade through her personal timeline is a bit more orderly than Billy’s: Oona reliably hops at midnight on New Year’s, which also happens to be her birthday. This happens first when she is turning 19, on New Year’s 1982. Oona usually arrives in her new year to a note that the previous year’s self—who, more often than not, is a future self—has left for her. One of the challenges Oona’s selves struggle with is how much to divulge about each upcoming year. Say too little and acclimating can be awkward; say too much and spoilers make it difficult to enjoy the year ahead. Throughout, Oona wrestles with whether or not her fate is fixed, along with a host of other questions that arise when one lives life non-linearly.
For me, I think the central philosophical question raised by this book is simply this: would I choose to live my life out of order? Oona, of course, doesn’t get a choice, nor do we learn why this happens to her. At times she laments her non-linear life; at other times she admits there are advantages. I think we can all see why. This book came out in February 2020, so of course Montimore had no idea about the pandemic that would soon flip upside down all our lives. Would I want to be able to skip those two years, knowing eventually I would have to come back to them later?
Similarly, I have a friend who is going through a very tough time in her personal life, and her professional aspirations have taken her far away from me. I know that in the years to come we will be closer, or at least travelling to spend time together will become easier, and that she will have healed. It’s tempting, the possibility of fast-forwarding to that future, even if this present must come round again.
Nevertheless, the more I mulled over this question, the more my answer became no.
My conclusion, I told Rebecca, was that experiencing linear time is a gift. While I don’t believe in a deity who created us, if such an entity or force exists, I credit it with the wisdom to fix us in time as well as space. I don’t envy the sense of fate that accompanies four-dimensional existence. Even if my future is pre-determined and my free will illusory, as some theories of modern physics suggest, I like that I don’t know what will happen, that I can at least act as if I have free will.
Montimore seems to agree with me. Oona is a willful and impulsive protagonist; she frequently reads her past year’s letter with impatience and disbelief before vociferously swearing not to follow her own advice. I’ll let you guess how that works out. While this aspect of Oona’s personality can be a frustrating quality to a main character, it also makes her a very interesting one. After all, how boring would the book be if Oona simply accepted her mode of living, settled down, made a lot of money from knowing parts of the future, and nothing bad happened to her?
Probably the most interesting sequence in the book occurs when Oona’s jump brings her to the year immediately prior the one she had just lived. She knows, therefore, that the man she meets this year she will marry—and subsequently divorce. Should she try to avoid meeting him, then? Is that even possible? Is it desirable? Imagine going into a deeply committed relationship knowing it is doomed to fail.
I like how Montimore reminds us that we can find happiness in the moment, and that we can find happiness in extended periods prior to a dark time. That is, essentially, what life is—for there is no getting out of it alive, and yes, the end always comes for everyone eventually, even Oona.
Now, scrutinizing the themes of Oona Out of Order is harder than it looks, for the book is almost fiendishly reluctant to lead us towards concrete conclusions. This is most evident in the ending. I was curious to see how many years Montimore would recount before inevitably having to wrap things up in a bow because of the linear limitations of a novel’s page count. Although I’m dissatisfied with the ending, let me offer up a disclaimer as well: I’m not sure there is a satisfactory way to end this book. I don’t think there is a neat bow that can be placed upon this story without ultimately making it too trite or contrived. This is one of those stories where the telling is far more interesting than the resolution. Still, there is a part of me out there that wonders what an older, more lived Oona must feel as she discovers that she never hops past a certain year. If she lives the year of her death, is that it? Or does she die, only to wake up on New Year’s of another year of her past? As you can see, there are many questions this book poses yet does not answer.
In the end, it’s tempting to judge Montimore for distilling down Oona’s life to a love story, as she jumps back to the wonderful year in Europe she will have with the soon-to-be-deceased father of her child. Yet I think that’s a shallow reading of a very deep statement. For the book, up until that point, makes it clear that Oona lives and loves again beyond Dale. For her return to him to be the culmination of the story is not a return to her OTP, then, but a reward, in a way—to Oona, yes, but to the reader, who has long known that this moment must come yet never got to experience it. Montimore ends the book for us on the happiest of notes, for as I expressed above, there are darker questions lurking within this fantastical setup.
Oona Out of Order is therefore a rich and complex piece of storytelling. It is science fiction that will doubtless masquerade as chick lit, which I am fine with, because chick lit is actually a damn good and complex genre in its own right—but for those of you who come to this book disdaining SF, I would urge you to stop and reconsider, for these are the books that truly power this genre. Beyond rocket ships and blasters, it’s the stories that ask us to consider the uniqueness of the human condition that truly propel us forward.