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Between Dreams and Reality

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

Reviewed by Elizabeth L., Public Services

In the year 2000, life in Manhattan feels like a utopia: the UN is eradicating global poverty, carbon emissions are falling worldwide, and with President Chen in office, the United States is at peace. Sedate Ben is busy with his job and PhD studies, and failed art student Kate is floating through life with an enviable ability to accept whatever comes her way. When they meet at a rich activist’s decadent party they are immediately taken with one another. Ben admires how Kate is known and loved by everyone, and is drawn into Kate’s circle of eccentric friends. Kate can be distant sometimes, but Ben hardly notices, content to be included in her world and to know she returns his love.

Kate is happy, but… distracted, her head in the clouds. She has had odd recurring dreams since childhood, and these days always dreams that she is Emilia in Elizabethan England, waiting out the plague and passing the time with her lover, Sad Will. As she dreams Emilia’s life every night, Kate comes to believe that her destiny is to help Sad Will succeed, even though Emilia’s actions seem to cause Kate to wake to a different present, with each iteration less happy, less hopeful than the last.

Her loved ones grow frustrated as she obsesses, and urge her to ignore her ridiculous dreams and engage with reality. But despite her growing disorientation and awareness that she could be delusional, Kate becomes convinced that her dreams are the most important thing in the world, more important than Ben, than her waking life. And Ben, who sleeps and wakes as no one but himself, watches helplessly as the woman he loves seems to be losing her mind, becoming crazy like his abusive mother was.

Eventually, Kate’s behavior deteriorates so completely that she is committed to a psychiatric ward, pregnant and helpless, disconnected from everything, searching for a way to stop her dual life: Should she kill herself? Kill Emilia? Kill Sad Will? What could possibly end her suffering?

The Heavens defies easy categorization, interlacing elements of literary fiction, science fiction, horror, and mystery, all caught in a tension that could carry any nail-biting suspense story. Author Newman weaves a complex plot and a tangled world where nothing is as it seems, yet everything is just as it seems, and the devil is in the details.

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