Author Nikki Erlick has given herself a tough assignment: creating a world in which people can open a box and find out how long they are going to live. The implications are staggering. How do you carry on with your life with the clock of doom ticking in your head? How does the knowledge affect your relationships? Your job? Your philosophy? And what are the impacts upon society?
Reactions to this paradigm shift emerge in the experiences of a magazine editor, her lover, an architect, a doctor, a schoolteacher, a politician, and two military men. Taken as a whole they cover a wide range of possibilities. Some relationships shatter, while others deepen. Some characters behave nobly, others despicably. A new form of discrimination arises. People lose their jobs. Factions emerge. Support groups spring up.
Erlick has worked out her line of reasoning with great care, to the point that we empathize with each character’s responses and eagerly turn the pages to learn more. She is at her best in a spontaneous exchange of letters between two strangers trying to express their feelings about mortality. To me, the eloquence of these letters is the best part of the novel.
Regrettably, the momentum Erlick builds so carefully through the first half of her story bogs down as she begins summarizing for the characters instead of letting them speak for themselves. A brave gesture by a Presidential candidate’s nephew gets dismissed too easily. A painful schism between a woman and her sister resolves in a flashback, undercutting the tension Erlick worked so hard to create. The letdown continues so that by the end of the story there are few surprises left to sustain interest.
Finally, offensive language makes even the admirable characters difficult to like. Still, this is a debut novel. Erlick deserves applause for tackling such a fundamental theme and making a convincing argument that all human beings are destined to face mortality, and for very good reasons.