The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks
In May 1895, Elsbeth Grundy, a crotchety widow living in a cabin on the Kansas plains, sees a purple and gold-painted Victorian home that has unexpectedly appeared in her wheat fields. Elsbeth determinedly stalks over to the home to demand an explanation of this irksome addition to her back forty, but every time she goes to knock on the door, she’s immediately displaced back to the gate around the home. Incensed, she leaves a letter in the mailbox, threatening to use her shotgun to deal with this unwanted trespass.
In May 1995, Annabelle Aster, a young woman in her late twenties who loves Jane Austen and dresses in Victorian-style clothing, takes a break from cleaning her beloved San Francisco Victorian home. She steps into her back yard and is completely bewildered by the sight of a cabin and a large field of wheat, neither of which, as far as she is aware, have any business being in downtown San Francisco. Like Elsbeth, Annie is knocked on her rear several yards away when she tries to knock on the cabin door. She glances in the mailbox, finds Elsbeth’s grouchy letter dated 1895, and cheerfully responds, delighted with the mystery of their unexpected connection across time and space. A red door in Annie’s home, marked with mysterious symbols, and originally owned by David Abbott, a magician who lived in Kansas City in the late 1800s, seems to be the fulcrum of the time warp between Annie and Elsbeth.
As Annie and Elsbeth develop their unusual pen pal relationship, Annie’s best friend Christian deals with the loss of much of his memory due to an accident in his past, and with his concern for Annie’s health, based on her paleness, her frequent nosebleeds, and his discovery of her correspondence with the California Pacific Medical Center. Christian is also dealing with his own issues, including hallucinations, a stutter and painful social awkwardness. Meanwhile, Cap’n, a gifted pickpocket in 1895 Kansas City who leads the local sandlot gang, sees a murder and realizes that she will be the next target of the menacing Mr. Culler and his hatchet man, Danyer.
These various threads start to come together as Annie reads some news clippings in the original store file about the red door, and realizes that the magician, David Abbott, will be murdered in three days’ time for Elsbeth. Annie entreats Elsbeth to go to Kansas City and save Abbott, but as things start to go terribly wrong, Annie realizes that she needs to find a way to travel to the past and try to set things right. Past starts to connect to present, and the characters find that when they act to try to change events based on their knowledge of the future, their actions are already part of the immutable past, a development that’s reminiscent of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Scott Wilbanks has created some very appealing characters in this time travel fantasy. All of the main characters ― Annie, Elsbeth, Christian, Cap’n and others ― are quirky misfits in one way or another, but they are sympathetically drawn (with the notable exception of Mr. Culler and his henchman Danyers, about whose characters the less said, the better). It’s heartwarming as these lonely people begin to fill the holes in each other’s lives.
The main problem with The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster is that there are too many elements that compete for attention and too many ingredients to this stew. A magical door that opens to different time periods and places is all well and good. But then adding visions of magic-wielding Cherokees, hallucinations of angels, a serial killer, a potentially fatal illness, issues related to homosexuality (including bullying, stuttering and family mistreatment), a whirlwind romance, addiction, and extreme psychosis, and the plot started to fray and lack coherence, particularly with some internal inconsistencies that weren’t satisfactorily explained.
These various plot elements do, for the most part, ultimately tie together in some way. On one level this helped to connect the plot, but at the same time the connections ― including multiple characters discovering pre-existing relationships to each other throughout the entire novel ― often strain believability. Along with too many diverse pieces to the plot, there were simply too many coincidences. Annie suggests that there is some agency looking over them and helping them to find each other; the magician David Abbott suspects that the red door is inhabited by an intelligence that guides the characters’ fates. But for me, ultimately the center couldn’t hold, although it was still a reasonably enjoyable read with charming characters and an intriguing time travel plot.
Scott Wilbanks’ writing style is engaging, with some nice touches of humor. The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster is his debut novel, and he shows good potential as an author; I think he just tried to include too much in what is essentially a light fantasy novel. Focusing on fewer elements, and exploring them more deeply, would have resulted in a better novel. Despite its flaws, I would still recommend this fanciful novel to fans of light time travel fantasies with elements of romance.
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