The Effect of Living Backwards

The Effect of Living Backwards

3.5 2
by Heidi Julavits

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Does Alice really hate her sister, or is that love? Was she really enrolled in grad school, or was that an elaborate hoax? Is this really a hijacking, or is it merely the effect of living backwards?

Following her acclaimed debut, The Mineral Palace, Heidi Julavits presents a quirky, compelling new novel about two sisters, a bizarre event, and the


Does Alice really hate her sister, or is that love? Was she really enrolled in grad school, or was that an elaborate hoax? Is this really a hijacking, or is it merely the effect of living backwards?

Following her acclaimed debut, The Mineral Palace, Heidi Julavits presents a quirky, compelling new novel about two sisters, a bizarre event, and the elusive nature of truth.

Author Biography: Heidi Julavits is the author of The Mineral Palace. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Best American Short Stories 1999, Esquire, Zoetrope, McSweeney's, and Time.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Julavits's first novel, The Mineral Palace, was an atmospheric horror show set in the Depression-era American West. The Effect of Living Backwards is far livelier and less portentous. Alice's self-loathing and her complex relationship with Edith provide the emotional core of a story that is savage and funny. The book is improbable, sure, but so wildly inventive that you hardly care. — Taylor Antrim
The Los Angeles Times
The Effect of Living Backwards shows off a young novelist with talent to burn and a desire to push beyond the smug posturing of many of her literary peers. — Stephen Metcalf
The Washington Post
Heidi Julavits takes the title of her second novel from a passage in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. "The effect of living backwards," the Queen tells Alice in that book, is that "it always make one a little giddy at first." For Julavits, whose first novel, The Mineral Palace, was published in 2000, the events of Sept. 11 seemed to create a kind of looking glass -- a tragedy so hard to comprehend that afterward we approached the world with a sort of giddy, guilty trepidation. — Alex Abramovich
...darkly humorous, acutely edgy tale of emotional psychological survival...
New York Times Book Review
...savage and funny...Julavits has transformed our paranoia into a grab bag of impieties, skepticism and levity.
USA Today
Julavits, whose first novel was The Mineral Palace, never delivers the expected. She conjures a world in which everyone has secrets, even from themselves, and nothing, not even the most obvious assumption, is what it seems. — Karen Dukess
Publishers Weekly
When contentious half-sisters Alice and Edith board a jetliner en route to Morocco, where Edith is to be married, they step unknowingly into a vortex of international intrigue when the jet is hijacked-or is it? As events unfold, the motives for this act of "terrorism," apparently a high-stakes stunt being pulled by one of two factions from the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, become ever more murky. In the futuristic and fantastical world of Julavits's second novel (after The Mineral Palace), which takes its title and epigram from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the political and familial machinations we recognize from our own contemporary lives scramble into a kaleidoscopic puzzle. Julavits's rambling surrealism is overlaid and intensified by a strong dose of paranoia la Pynchon, and the political and the familial merge in the form of a game from Alice and Edith's childhood called "shame stories," in which others are convinced to tell their darkest secrets. These tales, told by the sisters' fellow travelers, are fascinating excursions, a blend of the bizarre and the everyday. But as Alice's wastrel father tells her, "People don't want to be surprised. They want to hear the same story. Tell them the same story and they'll listen," and Julavits follows this advice herself. Beneath its absurdist trappings, her larger tale is surprisingly conventional, its real focus the sibling rivalry between Edith and Alice, shadowed by the terrorism subplots and the veiled references to September 11, or the "Big Terrible." Neither the novel's imaginative framework nor Julavits's cool, unerring eye for detail can quite compensate for its curiously mechanical emotional trajectory. Author tour; rights sold in France, Germany Holland, Italy, Sweden and U.K. (July) Forecast: Julavits is the darling of the young literary set, several of whom (Dave Eggers, Ben Marcus) are mentioned in her acknowledgments. Her controversial recent essay criticizing current book reviewing (published in the first issue of the magazine the Believer, of which she is co-editor), landed her in the media spotlight and will heighten the buzz around the novel. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In Julavits's second novel, the archetypically frightening experience of a plane hijacking is turned into a quirky quagmire where things are not always as they seem. Alice and Edith are sisters en route to Edith's wedding when their plane is seized by a group of whimsical characters led by a blind hijacker named Bruno. Alice is chosen as go-between with the hostage negotiators and soon finds herself falling for Bruno. Absurd embroilments, sibling rivalries, and ethical quandaries skitter in and out of the plot expeditiously, quickly replaced by another sharp observation or anecdote. Insightful and challenging, this oddball story is unforgettable. Julavits succeeds admirably in making the transition from her prior dramatic novel, The Mineral Palace, to this quick-witted black comedy. Recommended for public libraries.-Colleen Lougen, Mt. St. Mary Coll., Newburgh, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Following her seriously dark first novel (The Mineral Palace, 2000), Julavits takes a real risk with this black comedy about an airplane hijacking, not exactly the subject to tickle most funny bones these days. Having survived to become a student herself at the International Institute for Terrorist Studies, Alice recounts her hostage experience when Bruno, incongruously a blind man, and two inept cohorts take over the plane she and her sister Edith are passengers on, flying to Edith’s wedding in Morocco. The story is as much about sibling love and rivalry as about the ethical issues raised by terrorism--the women’s mutual devotion is balanced by their intense competitiveness for attention. As for the terrorists, it isn’t at all clear how dangerous they are, or whether the hijacking is some kind of elaborate hoax. The one hostage who’s shot--Edith thought the guns weren’t loaded--had already died of a heart attack. Although the other passengers seem frightened, Alice is never sure who’s real. She and Edith are genuinely scared even as they vie for Bruno’s attention. Edith uses sex. Alice, since she’s fluent in obscure languages, becomes the "the conduit" between Bruno and the hostage negotiator, who turns out to be Bruno’s brother. Apparently, these two siblings have followed different theories of fighting terrorism, and the outcome of the hijacking will determine who was right. Though ongoing banter between characters is meant to be both comic and profound, Julavits underlines her themes too heavily, especially the untrustworthiness of reality. The playing out of the hijacking itself is almost dull as hostages are released and the perpetrators disperse, allowing for no dramatic closure,so that the mystery of what really happened remains behind. In contrast to Ann Patchett’s humanistic view of the hostage experience in Bel Canto, Julavits’s brittle tone and edgy irony allow no reader empathy. Julavits does everything she can to turn readers off. But that may be her point.

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.34(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.16(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

What People are saying about this

George Saunders
An absolute tour de force of apparently limitless imaginative ability, deep psychological insight, and astonishing verbal precision. In one fell swoop, Heidi Julavits establishes herself as the Scheherazade of the new Anti-Terror Age. Funny, unnerving, sophisticated, and dazzling in the range of its invention, THE EFFECT OF LIVING BACKWARDS is a terrific and important addition to our literature.

Meet the Author

Heidi Julavits has published short fiction in Esquire, Story, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s, and The Best American Short Stories 1999. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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The Effect of Living Backwards 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Julavits is at her best with dialogue. I found it to be the best part of this novel. I wanted to know more about the main character, Alice...really liked her. But I was disappointed with the story or lack of of direction. I think it's tricky to tell a story that has a a plane hijacking as the backdrop especially in this sensitive post 9/11 era.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I continued to plow my way through this book even though I felt no emotional connection to any of the characters or a real understanding of what was really happening - which, of course, was the point. I prefer my reading to be a little less like taking mind altering drugs. However, I did think that the premise was interesting and liked the idea of the story connecting in a less logical order. In the end, for me, the puzzle just didn't come together and didn't leave me with any of the pleasant hum of feeling that you get after reading a really well drawn character - of 'missing' the characters after closing the back cover.
Guest More than 1 year ago
at first, the book seemed pretentious simply because of the way the narrator used language but it became more engaging as time went on. the author has created a protangonist who is honestly insightful. the best parts - almost outstanding - are the shame stories that alternate between chapters. i found the ending disappointing...almost a bit silly. however, i think this author could write some fiercely entertaining short stories.