Review: The Year We Turned Forty by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke

Sunday, April 24, 2016
Title: The Year We Turned Forty
Authors: Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke
Genre: general fiction, magical realism
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Published: expected April 26 2016
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 3.75/5

If you could repeat one year of your life, what would you do differently? This heartwarming and hilarious novel from the authors of The Status of All Things and Your Perfect Life features three best friends who get the chance to return to the year they turned forty—the year that altered all of their lives, in ways big and small—and also get the opportunity to change their future.

Jessie loves her son Lucas more than anything, but it tears her up inside that he was conceived in an affair that ended her marriage to a man she still loves, a man who just told her he's getting remarried. This time around, she’s determined to bury the secret of Lucas’ paternity, and to repair the fissures that sent her wandering the first time.

Gabriela regrets that she wasted her most fertile years in hot pursuit of a publishing career. Yes, she’s one of the biggest authors in the world, but maybe what she really wanted to create was a family. With a chance to do it again, she’s focused on convincing her husband, Colin, to give her the baby she desires.

Claire is the only one who has made peace with her past: her twenty-two year old daughter, Emily, is finally on track after the turmoil of adolescence, and she's recently gotten engaged, with the two carat diamond on her finger to prove it. But if she’s being honest, Claire still fantasizes about her own missed opportunities: a chance to bond with her mother before it was too late, and the possibility of preventing her daughter from years of anguish. Plus, there’s the man who got away—the man who may have been her one true love.

But it doesn’t take long for all three women to learn that re-living a life and making different decisions only leads to new problems and consequences—and that the mistakes they made may, in fact, have been the best choices of all…

I am beginning to think that writing duo Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke may be magical beings themselves. As a reader, I am three novels in and each successive read has been engaging and fresh, clever and original, heartfelt and humorous. These are a pair of authors that know how to tug on nearly every emotion and manage to do so many times over the course of this year-long story. Their vein of magical realism lends well to crafting three-dimensional characters and intriguing plotlines.  Here, in their third novel, The Year We Turned Forty, they take a premise that nearly everyone has imagined once or twice --- " What if I could fix my life?" -- and explores that possibility through three different women, with three unanticipated journeys and final results. 

Lisa and Liz know female friendship; they really get it because they share it. Happily for readers who like realistic and meaningful relationships, they take care to show the nuances and history that crop up when women know each other, for good or ill, for decades. Their main characters - Jessie, Gabi, Claire -- are very different from one another but their love and bond feels and reads authentically. Each is tested in varying ways over the course of The Year We Turned Forty, but all are different women from where they started when the story has concluded. I really liked how the authors developed the storylines for each woman; without veering into spoilers, I can safely say that they don't take the expected or easy path for any of their characters.

Though The Year We Turned Forty is a mix of contemporary fiction and magical realism/time travel, the authors don't delve too deeply into whatever supernatural element makes their story function. There's no real reason these three women were chosen or allowed, or any explanation for how, exactly, they go back 10 years in time -- it just happens and then the story follows the differences that pop up in the re-done timeline. The contrast between what has happened before and what will happen in the new timeline makes for interesting plot points; issues and secrets that had been taken for granted now come into play in major ways for more than just the three main characters. 

Love and friendship are the heart of this novel. It explores many themes - family, regret, redemption, marriage - but it succeeds because of how much you grow to care about Gabi's struggles with her dreams, or Claire's reluctance to put herself first, or Jessie's fear of honesty and loneliness. Lisa Steinke and Liz Fenton have created a story with wit and poignancy; one that doesn't offer up easy answers but makes its characters work for personal resolution and grow as individuals. The Year We Turned Forty feels a tad short at under 350 pages total, but it's an engaging and entertaining magical realism read.

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