Looking for brilliant character development and plotting with a new take on the well-tried theme of death, loss and starting over? Then a really, really recumbent that you pick up The First Time Lauren Pailing Died. As you might tell from the title, the main character is Lauren and she has multiple deaths, multiple lives and multiple families. The novel follows the reverberations of Lauren’s deaths on her parents, husbands and her own psyche.
When we first meet Lauren, she is an eight-year old who lives with her accountant dad, Bob, and part-time shop assistant mother, Vera. They live in Northern England in a small village called the Willows. Her parents are warm, caring people, making the best of the economic recession of the late 70s. They love their creative, bright and loving daughter, although they occasionally worry about her tendency to inexplicably squint and stare at walls and table tops. Lauren knows not to tell her parents that what she sees are sunbeams so solid they appear to be made of metal. She definitely knows not to tell them that when she looks at them, she is shown other versions of her parents. Other versions of herself. When Lauren dies in her early teens, her family is absolutely devastated. Her mother kills herself and her father is left to rebuild his life alone. But her mother also does not kill herself because they have another little girl. Also, Lauren does not die but survives the traffic accident. Three simultaneous versions come into being. And we get to follow them.
In the next version of Lauren’s life, things are pretty much the same, but also very different. Her mother has a mole on her forehead she cannot remember, the twins she knew down the street never were born and for some reason she remembers her dad as funnier and her mother as more glamorous. Things are always slightly different, but Lauren decides to ignore her feelings of strangeness and carry on with being a teenager in the 80s. Lauren builds a career and family of her own, before she dies again. And again she finds herself in a new, but now markedly different version of her life. With a new husband, new children, a new career and a new brother. Again she must adapt to a new life, but also to the loss of her old life and her forever lost loved ones. It is a strange sorrow to mourn people who never actually were in our life.
I have a thing for tales about multiple lives, so the moment I spotted this in the bookshop, I knew I had a good afternoon ahead of me. Unable to put down the book, I spent some strangely enjoyable hours reading about terrible grief and confusion. Most painful was perhaps the version in which Bob attempts to find happiness in the world after his wife’s suicide and daughter’s death. This is the version in which we get to see what incredible strength lies within a pretty ordinary and unexceptional man and that is amazingly touching.
Thank God, the author made Lauren slightly awkward and uncertain of herself. Otherwise the woman would have become positively saintly, for she remains kind, generous and extremely adaptable in every life. It would have been to much is she looked like a model, caught the eye of every man she fount interesting, had an amazing career and had perfect relationships as well. But Rudd allows Lauren to be both flawed and lovable.
The funniest bits came definitely after Lauren’s husband Tim entered the story. Poor Tim. He plans everything to the dot, is always being proactive in business and absolutely tireless. But emotional intelligence and people skills are not really his forte. he struggles to ask a girl he likes out on a date or see the dynamic of his romantic and family relationships. When he was left behind, I was really wondering how on earth the man would manage without Lauren. But it feels like if there is a take-home message to this book, it is that people are stronger than one would think. And that each life, although it may be short, can have a positive impact on someone else. Sometimes in unforeseen ways.
Every time Lauren moves on to a new life, her family knows she is dead. But one family that never really gets closer is the Stannings. Peter Stanning is Bob’s boss in every version. When Lauren dies the first time, he is there for the parents, supporting them, grieving with them, but then he inexplicably disappears. He becomes missing in Lauren’s second and third life as well. Each time it influences Lauren and her life, but each time, the disappearance is never solved. Peter’s son George always creates a new life for himself, but the wish to understand, the wish to bury a parent remains. In a strange way, Lauren will contribute to the solving of the mystery.