What if you had to relive the last year of your life? Would you make different choices the second time around? The Repeat Year, the debut novel from Milwaukee author Andrea Lochen, explores the notions of fate and destiny while questioning how much control one has over a life.
The Repeat Year chronicles a year in the life of the fictional Olive Watson, a twenty-five-year-old nurse living in Madison, Wisconsin. Waking up on New Year’s Day of what is supposed to be 2012, Olive realizes she is in fact reliving the first day of 2011—a year she desperately wants to forget.
Olive’s 2011 was fraught with loss. She made a horrible mistake that caused her boyfriend, Phil, to end their four-year relationship. After their relationship ended, Olive moved out of the apartment she shared with long-time best friend, Kerrigan. The women’s friendship grew tense and distant shortly afterward.
This was also the year of her mother’s marriage to Harry, a UW–Madison professor. Harry is the polar opposite of Olive’s late father, who died of cancer a few years earlier. Utterly opposed to her mother’s marriage and the prospect of her moving on, the death of her father haunts Olive as she tries to move forward in her own relationships and career.
All of this family drama is matched by struggles at work. Olive also encounters severely injured and dying patients on a daily basis at work in the Intensive Care Unit. Witnessing other families’ tragedies only brings back her own painful memories and serves to focus and intensify her grief.
Running parallel to Olive’s story is that of Sherry Witan. Olive meets Sherry at her mother’s New Year’s Day party and soon afterward discovers that Sherry is also a “repeater.” Sherry is reliving 2011, and she has relived previous years of her life as well; she had to repeat 2005 three times. The first two times, Sherry chose not to be with her mother when she passed away. Sherry tells Olive that she believes the mysterious force responsible for her repeat years would not allow her to move on to 2006 until she made amends with her mother before she died.
“So what you’re saying is that the essential idea behind reliving this year is to correct something we did wrong last year?” Olive says to Sherry as she grapples with the concept. Like Sherry, Olive must make better decisions the second time around—she must “get it right”—before she can graduate to the next year.
It’s an interesting literary device, but Lochen never provides a reason for the mysterious force or explains why only a chosen few such as Olive and Sherry must relive years over again, while the rest of us make mistakes but move forward anyway.
Although Olive comes to see her repeat year as a chance for redemption, she spends a great deal of time ruminating over how best to correct the mistakes she made the first time around. The pace of the story drags a bit as Olive’s knowledge of future events often leaves unable to choose any action.
Things get more interesting when Olive does take decisive action and dramatically intervenes to stop another nurse from making a fatal mistake. But Olive learns the hard way that what is good might not necessarily be what is right.
Gradually it dawns on Olive that she can’t ever have complete control over the outcomes of her choices: “How could she have been so naïve? She was furious with herself … she’d been patting herself on the back and imagining a fairy-tale ending … when it came right down to it, they didn’t have the power to change much of anything.”
Although Lochen dismisses the idea of “Fate with a capital F,” implicit in her use of the repeat year is the idea that, although our actions can take us down many paths, there is one best route for each of us. At the end of the novel, Olive realizes that her repeat year was just “a vehicle for her … to see all the different choices she could make” before realizing that one course of action was the best choice for her all along. The pace of the novel picks up when Olive finally goes after what she really wants in life and refuses to give up.
In the end, Lochen offers readers a nuanced message: although we do not fully control the outcome of events, we must figure out our best course of action and pursue it wholeheartedly. In a sense, The Repeat Year is about knowing what matters most to you and living your life with no regrets the first time around. Although the pace is measured and the outcome predicable, the novel’s premise has a certain appeal for anyone who has wished for moments—if not years—they could do over again.