The alternate self is a persistent theme of modern culture. From Robert Frost to Sharon Olds, Virginia Woolf to Ian McEwan, poets and novelists—and readers—are fascinated by paths not taken. Andrew H. Miller lingers with these other selves, listening to what they have to say about our stories and our lives.
... 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.