Recursion by Blake Crouch

Overall: 8 / Characters: 4 / Atmosphere: 9 / Writing Style: 8 / Plot: 8 / Intrigue: 9 / Logic: 8 / Enjoyment: 10

Side note: I am trying out a new rating system/framework to think about and write my notes for fiction books. It is called CAWPILE and you can find out more here.


Barry has had a difficult life. His daughter gets killed in a hit-and-run when she is still in high school and his life falls apart from there. His marriage fails and he is spending his days working as a detective for the New York City Police Department and spending his nights wallowing in sorrow in his empty apartment.

He gets a call one night about a women about to jump off the 41st floor to end the memories of a life she’s never lived. It looks like one of the False Memory Syndrome cases that have been popping up recently.

Helena is a workaholic who has dedicated her life and academic career to studying memories. She wants to have her mother experience all of her past memories before Alzheimer’s rips them away.

Helena doesn’t just create a device that allows people to experience their past memories; they can change them and the very fabric of time along with it. With Helena’s invention, Barry gets sent back to a memory of that dark night so many years ago when his daughter was killed. Except this time, he gets up from his chair and changes the trajectory of his life.

Helena knows the danger that this technology poses on the world. If memories can’t be trusted, what, then, is real?

Favorite Quotes

Life with a cheat code isn’t life. Our existence isn’t something to be engineered or optimized for the avoidance of pain. That’s what it is to be human—the beauty and the pain, each meaningless without the other.

Spoilers Ahead

Characters - 4/10

The characters were a bit generic and not particularly interesting. There wasn’t much development and I feel like I don’t really know any of the characters, like they could be replaced by anyone and I wouldn’t notice. Even though Barry and Helena lived so many lives on a loop, they hardly changed as people. They are a bit more ragged and discouraged with the impending doom that comes at the end of each loop, but that’s about it.

The only character trait that I admired was Helena’s integrity. She didn’t sell out when she realized the potential use cases of her invention and recognized the danger it posed for the world. She understood the power that she held and did everything she could to destroy the knowledge of the technology that she created.

Atmosphere - 9/10

The setting felt modern and familiar. Crouch uses some amazing imagery throughout to describe the scenes. I could picture all the hectic moments, the hordes of people panicking. I could hear the sounds of bodies falling from rooftops onto cars and I could feel the pain in my lungs every time someone got into the deprivation tank. I physically recoiled after Barry and Helena survive nuclear fallout and are suffering from the radiation:

He steps to the door and takes hold of the three-spoked handle, groaning with agony as he strains to crank the wheel. Nothing’s moving but the layers of skin he’s stripping away, and a horrifying thought occurs to him—what if the heat of the blast fused the innards of the door? A vision of their last day together—cooking slowly from thermal radiation in the burned-out husk of their home, unable to reach the chair, knowing that they failed…Barry leaves part of his hand on the wheel as he pulls it away and follows Helena, corkscrewing down the stairs in the meager light of her phone’s sustained camera flash.

The tense moments in the city were balanced with nice idyllic settings when Helena and Barry were living their lives in loops. In one life, they lived deep in the Sonora desert. In another, they were in a remote tundra on Antarctica watching the aurora australis. They live the last moments of the current timeline in relative peace and quiet that is a nice change from the world blowing itself up.

Writing Style - 8/10

Crouch has an interesting writing style that I noticed in his other book, Dark Matter. He sometimes writes sentences that don’t use pronouns, as if to ask what she, he, and we really mean when timelines are getting crossed.

The dialogue is very natural and comfortable. Characters talk how people talk in real life. Crouch combines past, present, and future tenses into the same sentence to remind us how absurd and mind-bending this story is and how tangled everything gets after experiencing a few different timelines:

Barry pulls a black duffel bag out of the trunk, and Helena follows him onto the sidewalk and a little ways down to the entrance of a bar they’ve been in once before, four months from now, when they came to scope out the tunnel access to Slade’s building and discuss their plans for this exact moment.

Plot - 8/10

I liked the overall plot. It flowed nicely and didn’t have too many things going on. It is a unique story and as such was not predictable at all and made it an interesting read. The book resolved nicely although I do feel sad that Helena died thinking that she failed after so many long, hard tries.

Intrigue - 9/10

This was a page turner for me and I blew through it in just a few days. I got sucked in and had to stop a few times to ask what the fuck? I was thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it and was constantly engaging with it, wondering what I would do if faced with these situations.

Logic - 8/10

As mind-boggling as this story is, everything made sense. Stories get complex as soon as you start to introduce time travel concepts and Crouch also adds on a memory component to further the complexity.

The logic did start to break down towards the end when Helena is looping through trying to find a way to stop everyone’s memories from coming back. Each time that the loop ended and everyone got their memories from their previous lives back, Helena was miles away from the chair that she uses to go back and try again. This caused her to always need to be dodging nuclear warheads or government agents right at the last moment. It fed into the intrigue but when you step back, it didn’t make sense.

For someone as smart and dedicated as Helena, why would she take the unnecessary risk of being away from the chair when she knew what would happen? I understand that she wants to spend at least a few moments with Barry when he has his full memory back. But why punctuate those moments with running for your life and fear of not being able to go back?

Enjoyment - 10/10

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be recommending it to everyone who is a fan of science fiction. It was fun to read and to think through all of possible scenarios and consequences of going back in time to a memory.

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Written by Human, Not by AI

Last Modified: 2023-08-22