The premise of The One That Got Away, the debut novel by Leigh Himes, is a familiar one: a contemporary twist on the alternate-universe construction found in It's a Wonderful Life. Our protagonist, Abbey Lahey, finds herself wallowing in a dead-end PR job and mid-30s motherhood in suburban Philadelphia, caring for two small children and an unambitious husband, Jimmy.
During a moment of self-pity while flipping through a magazine, she spots Alex van Holt, a long-lost crush from the upper crust of the Philadelphia elite. Abbey briefly allows herself to wonder what life would be like if she had taken him up on his offer of a date so many years before, then heads off to Nordstrom to return a $600 purse she can't afford.
On the escalator, she loses her balance, tumbling over the railing and smacking her head on a piano below. She wakes up in a hospital, foggy from the fall — only to have Alex walk into the room, tailored suit and all. At first she mistakes him for a doctor, then realizes she has entered a world in which she and Alex have been married for 10 years. Her dreams of being a fashionable member of the 1% — specifically, Abbey van Holt — have been realized.
"In the mirror, I was the Abbey I always knew I could be," Abbey tells us as she checks out her new svelte figure in the full-length mirror found in her walk-in closet filled to the brim with designer clothes and shoes.
The arc of the book traces Alex's run for Congress and Abbey's attempts to figure out what exactly caused her to wake up in this alternate world. But she tries to find answers half-heartedly, and seems at least content to play out this fantasy. "Abbey Lahey and her out-of-work husband, stacks of bills and bulging muffin top were becoming more distant, further away," she says after a week in her new life as a van Holt.
Himes writes in a wistful, easy-to-read style, allowing the reader to entertain the notion of living in this fantasy universe and coloring Abbey's world through an impressive attention to detail. The author seems to be guiding both Abbey and the reader through this reality, explaining the intricacies and nuances of fashion choices and high-society protocol from the point of view of someone in the know. In this respect, Himes adeptly manages to keep one foot in the real world and one foot in Abbey's imagined reality.
Throughout the narrative, Abbey weaves in memories of her former life, but these mostly serve to illustrate the fact that she enjoys her new lifestyle much more than its previous incarnation. In flashbacks that illuminate her relationship with Jimmy, Abbey paints a picture of a struggling couple that nonetheless have stuck with each other through thick and thin, but rarely does she long to return to her life in the suburbs. This is her fantasy, and although it comes with its own host of problems, readers will be struck by the quick comfort Abbey has with living this new life.
The book ends abruptly and predictably, yet the ambivalence Abbey has toward her life with Jimmy and the kids and the suburbs is left unresolved. But throughout the novel, Himes gives the reader plenty of opportunities to wonder just what life would be like with the one that got away.