Deja vu all over again: In Debra Jo Immergut’s new novel, a middle-aged woman is haunted by visions of her younger self

  • Debra Jo Immergut, seen here at her home in Northampton, has fashioned a psychological thiller and meditation on time and memory with her new novel, “You Again.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Debra Jo Immergut, seen here at her home in Northampton, has fashioned a psychological thiller and meditation on time and memory with her new novel, “You Again.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The New York Times calls Debra Jo Immergut’s new novel “dreamlike and immersive” and “eerily relevant” in a time of uncertainty wrought by the pandemic.

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2020 4:45:34 PM

What would it be like if you caught a glimpse of your younger self, wandering the street where you used to live? Would you think you were hallucinating, or that maybe you needed a good night of sleep?

Or might you feel compelled to approach this doppelgänger and, based on your own life experience, give the person some advice on what to do — and what not to do?

Abigail “Abby” Willard, the narrator of Debra Jo Immergut’s new novel, “You Again,” faces just that dilemma when, on a rainy night in New York City, she spies what she believes is her 22-year-old self, jumping into a cab and kissing a guy who looks vaguely familiar.

Abby is 46 and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two teenage sons; she has a job in Manhattan as the art director of a pharmaceutical company. But she remembers that in her early 20s she considered herself “an experience junkie” and loved art, late nights, clubbing and a bit of danger. So could this vision of her past self be some sort of reprimand for the staid middle-aged life she now finds herself in?

That’s one of the questions at the heart of the fast-paced story by Immergut, a Northampton author who’s woven a bit of herself into the book, which is at once a psychological mystery, a thriller and a meditation on time and memory. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she published a collection of short stories in the early 1990s, began writing a novel — and then got sidetracked for much of the next 20-plus years by magazine writing, editing and motherhood.

But Immergut, who’s now 56, returned to fiction in 2018 with “The Captives,” a novel that was nominated last year for an Edgar Award for the best new mystery novel by an American writer. In a recent interview, she said “You Again” dates back to 2005, a time when she had her husband, writer John Marks, and their young son, Joe, had just moved to Northampton from New York City.

“I was trying to process my life in New York and my creative journey,” said Immergut. “I was in this new community, and I felt like I needed to try and carve out some time and creative space for myself.”

She ended up putting the novel aside but returned to it after writing “The Captives,” revising much of the old material but still keeping its basic premise at its center: What might happen if you were to encounter a younger version of yourself, and what might it represent? And is time strictly a linear progression, or is it a more malleable, multifaceted dimension?

“You Again,” whose narrative is based primarily on Abby’s diary entries from 2015, presents Abby as a fairly well-settled middle-aged woman and parent, with a long-term marriage that seems solid enough but has also accumulated some degree of ennui. As she continues to see her younger self around New York, she can’t help but think it’s a reminder that she gave up on her painting — she’s a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)— for the security of an ultimately unsatisfactory 9 to 5 job.

Immergut says Abby is not a stand-in for herself — she enjoyed much of the writing she did in the past for publications such as The Boston Globe, New York magazine, and The Wall Street Journal — but rather an amalgamation of different people and experiences, and a symbol many can understand.

“We all experience points in our lives where we look back and wonder about the decisions we made,” she said. “I felt a conflict at times, a frustration with what I was doing and what I felt I should be doing, feeling there was a lack of daring in my life and wondering why that was.”

A life unraveling

Abby has more to deal with than just this ghostly image of her younger self. Her moody older son, Pete, who’s 16, has suddenly become part of a group of young antifa activists. The police come knocking after Pete is caught throwing a brick through the window of a home of a man he describes as “a known fascist.”

“A fascist?” asks a bewildered Abby. “Isn’t that a bit last century?”

Meanwhile, her husband, Dennis, a fellow artist she met at RISD, is fired from his job with a design firm. To add some additional spice to the growing chaos, Abby begins an on-and-off affair with the handsome police detective who’s handling Pete’s case; she eventually discovers Dennis is having an affair, too. And Pete’s involvement with the antifa group, despite his parents’ warnings, only increases.

Abby begins tailing her doppelgänger around some of her old haunts in the city, then approaches her, feeling she needs to warn the younger woman — who gives her name only as “A” — about something dangerous in her immediate future. It’s a memory Abby can’t quite recall from her own past but that’s triggered by also seeing images of an old boyfriend, Eli, a wild young man who eventually developed a drug problem.

The “kinetic plot,” as one reviewer describes it, includes a devastating fire in Abby’s apartment, a ring of international art thieves, and the reappearance in her life of Mariah, a friend from her early days as an artist. Mariah’s now a hugely successful painter, living in a swanky Manhattan townhouse, but she tells Abby, “You were always a better painter than me. You knew that, right? If you didn’t, Abby, you were the only one.”

Immergut explores the notion of the fluidity of time by interspersing email messages between the police detective, a neurologist and a physicist, in which the three examine case files documenting some serious kind of injury or illness Abby has endured — or will endure, as they allude to a future point in the narrative, and which also might be connected to some traumatic event in Abby’s distant past.

“That’s an idea I really wanted to play with,” Immergut said.

It’s one of the means she employs to keep the pages turning in “You Again,” published by Ecco Press of New York, an imprint of HarperCollins. She describes it as “the kind of book I like to write — something that walks the line between literary fiction, thriller and mystery. I like to begin with an energy-packed premise and than just use my imagination from there.”

She also writes knowledgeably about art and color perception. “I’m a would-be painter,” she said. “I love visual art, I’ve dabbled in it a bit, and I have a bunch of friends who are artists. Whenever I go to see an exhibit, I always think, ‘This would be so much more fun than writing.’”

These days Immergut is working “ferociously” on a third novel, one that will also examine issues of time and memory. She’s also taught writing in a number of settings and is preparing to lead a number of online classes this fall. “To help people find their own creative spark, whatever their age or their level of experience — I really love that,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Debra Jo Immergut will have a livestreamed interview about her new novel with Linda Wentworth of the Jones Library at 3 p.m. on July 29, at the Jones Library Facebook page (facebook.com/joneslibrary/). More information about Immergut’s books and writing classes is available at debrajoimmergut.com.

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