... an expertly curated tour of regret and envy in literature ... Mr. Miller, an English professor at Johns Hopkins, writes from a perspective that presumes we exercise free will over such choices; his aim is to palliate the pain we experience when, so we think, we have made the wrong ones. He slyly notes that regret often involves a kind of unjustified self-flattery ... By approaching regret and envy from multiple angles, Mr. Miller’s insightful and moving book—both in his own discussion and in the tales he recounts—gently nudges us toward consolation.
Insightful as the analyses are, it wouldn’t be possible to tackle this fascinatingly amorphous subject without grappling, deeply earnestly, with the nature of what it is to live a life. Miller has chosen an exposing subject. His book is gently, thoughtfully personal. Short sections written in the first person are interspersed with passages of textual criticism, and there are also summaries of news stories and psychology studies. These resources help Miller to think about how alternative lives function, within and beyond the literary work ... the studies he cites are revealing ... Miller’s arguments steer the book away from despair at contemporary life ... I agree with Miller—I think he has identified a considerable subject of literature as I know it, and he shows, in a pleasingly unmethodical way, how experience and literature dictate form to one another. There are interesting leads for many further studies inside his capacious book.
This thoughtful and meditative study from Victorian literature professor Miller...is wonderfully lucid about murky questions of what might have been ... Both literature specialists, who will appreciate Miller’s breadth of examples, and general readers, who can enjoy the universal topics he explores, will find much food for thought in this pleasant work.
The examples begin with 'The Road Not Taken,' 'the classic poem of unled lives,' but Miller, a professor of English at Johns Hopkins, extends that theme all the way through It’s a Wonderful Life and Jenny Offill’s contemporary novel Dept. of Speculation. The author also ponders the possibilities of those alternate lives in his own mind, inviting readers to do the same. He describes how the early stages of a life (or novel or story) have expansive possibilities, how critical choices narrow those possibilities—through marriage, geography, vocation, etc.—and how the resulting narrow road leaves us pondering those roads that led in different directions. Miller shows how this recognition of unled lives informs fiction, how characters define their lives in contrast to those not led, how novelists acknowledge that their artistic choices don’t preclude reflection on others they might have chosen, and how plotlines that seem inevitable might have taken different turns ... The author proceeds from close readings of Dickens, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf to a particularly incisive examination of the narrative strategy in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. ... A strong, pleasing work that is as much about living as about reading and writing.