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What if You Could Live in All Your Parallel Universes at Once?

“I liked the neatness of those times,” says Prof. Garrett Adams, the ruminative protagonist of Laurel Brett’s clever debut novel, “The Schrödinger Girl.” Those times are the 1950s, a decade Garrett admits had its problems, but he nonetheless longs for the containment of its routines, its boundaries. Unlike the confusing ’60s, its music, fashion, the youth. He doesn’t get what is so revolutionary about the now.

Yet all this is about to change, when he meets the right girl. And Daphne is a girl, he notices immediately, of approximately 16. But Brett smartly veers her story away from the expected one, despite the allusions to “Alice in Wonderland” and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” In a manifestation of the theoretical hypothesis of parallel universes, Daphne soon becomes four Daphnes, each with her own personality and interests. The first is a top student, the others a high school dropout, a political activist, a bohemian artist’s muse. Each Daphne interacts with Garrett on a discrete timeline. So much for the bygone order of the ’50s.

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Garrett’s academic studies ground his personal conundrum in a scientific one: that of Schrödinger’s cat. In 1935, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger conducted an experiment that proposed a dual reality in which a single cat could be at once dead and alive. Two decades later, the physicist Hugh Everett similarly postulated, in his “Many-Worlds Interpretation,” that “all possible future histories are real.” Unobserved, a Daphne could be one of many hypothetical entities, but once Garrett observes a particular iteration of her, the other possibilities collapse. According to the parallel-universe paradox, two Daphnes cannot meet. But whether they know of each other is, enticingly, unclear.

Brett’s novel is a rare page turner that avoids the obvious traps. These girls are their decade personified, multifaceted and difficult, but then so is Garrett, with his troubled past, his acid-fueled musings, his ambient lust — all woven together effortlessly, without excessive mysticism or nostalgia. In fact we’re so immersed in his adventure that we go long stretches without encountering a single Daphne. In these gaps I found myself taking stock of that era in American history: As hopeless as it all seems to us now, in hindsight — the assassinations, Vietnam, the riots — people were still buoyant with hope, for realities other than theirs. Perhaps “what-ifs” are the root of change.

While spellbound by Brett’s clean prose and obvious intellect, I finished the book wondering if the follow-through was as masterful as the setup. Or had I simply become one of Garrett’s students? Bored with his “prosaic,” “stifling” syllabus, he presents the four-Daphnes problem to his psychology class as a way of exploring “consciousness expansion,” and suddenly, the book reads as a smitten teacher’s stimulating thought exercise that can have no satisfactory outcome. I could have done without many of the metaphors for the Schrödinger girls — “each in her own perfect, iridescent-transparent bubble,” each “a refracted ray of light,” each one of “the many phases of the moon” — their differences gratuitously reiterated when I already knew them well. The prose at times struck me as whimsical (“Art, myth and science presided over the mystery together. Are they really different?”), if not logically faulty (wouldn’t Garrett have known that nothing in quantum mechanics scales beyond the size of the atom?). But perhaps any more rigor would ruin the story’s essence, one that starts with Garrett in a bookstore, listening to a mother read Lewis Carroll’s chapter “Down the Rabbit-Hole.” So why not let Garrett indulge a little? His pursuit is maddening, because it should be. But the more impossible his reality becomes, the greater the potential for, as the professor says, “transcendence.”

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