As a child, did I somehow miss all the mentions of this well-regarded book or has it become that obscure here in the US? Whatever the case, Charlotte Sometimes still felt magical to me as I read it years after my childhood. That has to do in part with the fantastical premise of two girls switching places in time, but more so is due to Penelope Farmer’s novel being a fascinating exploration of identity, friendship, sibling love and more.
The main plot device at work is a combination of time traveling and identity swapping. The main character Charlotte is transported back to 1918 into Clare’s life, and Clare takes Charlotte’s place. This swap is unknown to those around Charlotte and Clare, until Clare’s sister Emily suspects that something strange is going on. It’s a little reminiscent of the recent young adult novel Every Day by David Levithan.
The closest analogy in real life might be like you temping in or full-on taking over someone’s job; your situation is shaped by the previous employee’s responsibilities and legacy, but you’re a different person with your own styles of communicating, handling the work and relationships. You have stepped into the niche your predecessor had and have taken on their role in the workplace. How much do you change yourself? How much do you assert yourself? How comfortable do you feel? These are some of the questions that lie within Charlotte Sometimes.
As interesting as all that is, one related feature of the narrative really got and continues to hold my attention. [Spoiler Alert] Since the story follows Charlotte as she occupies Clare’s life in her boarding school, Clare is only experienced by Charlotte (and the reader by extension) in the messages she leaves Charlotte and the expectations teachers and peers have of Charlotte; they never meet, despite the strange connection they have. There’s something tragic and amazing about this. While fantastical, the essence of this situation can be found in real life: one can be so close to and so deeply influenced by someone else’s life without direct contact, without getting to know each other in person. As humans, we have the ability to get to know each other through media such as writing and other forms of expression and through mutual friends, colleagues, mentors or relatives.
This happens to us all the time on small scales too. Those we care about shape who we are even when absent, as we consider their advice, see or use their belongings, talk with people they have connected us to and more. The influence they have can be substantial even, or especially, when those people important to us are not around. Seen this way, a person clearly extends significantly beyond their physical body into relationships with other people.
That’s where the magic lies for me in Charlotte Sometimes—the artistic amplification of our quintessentially human experience in which the absence and presence of ourselves shaped by the absence and presence of someone else.