Buy Once There Was A Way at Amazon.
Read author Zabel’s biography on Goodreads, and you’ll find an impressive resume steeped in sci-fi and speculative fiction, and it’s not limited to book format. Once There Was A Way is an alternative history, and while it is a work of fiction I hesitate to call it a novel. It’s not a narrative in the traditional sense, like previous Beatle-related fiction reviewed here. Ian R. MacLeod’s Snodgrass stands out in my mind because it also asks “what if?” That story followed John Lennon in a life of near squalor, having left The Beatles before reaching any level of international fame. Once offers not just a “what if” but “what could have been.”
The book begins in 1968 at the dawn of the Apple age, with John and Paul about to announce its genesis on The Tonight Show. Immediately the trajectory veers from actual history. Reality shows (or it would, if the full footage still existed) John and Paul had to settle that night for a substitute host, Joe Garagiola. Book John and Book Paul have enough sense to hold out for the real thing, and Carson jumps.
From there we’re treated to a story laid out in lengthy Behind The Music style as The Beatles flirt with divorce but ultimately agree to probationary periods of togetherness for the sake of keeping Apple viable and solvent. They agree to completing film and album commitments, yet take turns gazing longingly at the exit. Unlike bands that stay together for the paycheck despite passing their prime, The Beatles continue to spin gold.
Zabel threads in non-events ingrained in band lore (the invitation to Woodstock, the Lord of the Rings adaptation) and makes them happen. As the band’s life span lengthens, so some of the individual achievements in song become those of the group. Some moments in the story seem almost too far-fetched and Forrest Gump, even for speculative fiction, but as escapism it inspires a smile.
My big issue with the book was the style. Once I realized I didn’t have a straight narrative story I felt apprehensive about following through. The strength of Once There Was A Way comes in the characters. If you’re big on The Beatles you’re more likely to enjoy this than a non-fan. After getting through the initial chapter about The Tonight Show, I found my groove and finished this with good speed.
As for how long The Beatles remain together in this book, and who survives to the end, I won’t spoil it. I will say Zabel’s ending probably reflects the feelings of a number of fans who had hoped for more after 1970.
An ARC from Netgalley was received from the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Kathryn Lively is looking for her next book to read.