Cover Image: 4 3 2 1

4 3 2 1

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I have tried  - and failed - several times to get into this book. It is not one for me.

All the same, many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for giving me a copy in exchange for this honest review.
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“The torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place”.  Like in Kate Atkinson’s “Life after Life”, Paul Auster gives his central character, Ferguson, multiple parallel lives.  There is a background of politics and world events and a relationship (which varies in its happiness in each version), at the centre of each of the four lives of Ferguson. Much longer than Atkinson’s novel, it is possibly a bit too long, but is well worth the time.
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I deeply disliked this book - and eventually gave up without finishing it.

I prefer not to leave negative reviews online (unless it has made me angry for some reason) and so I didn't write any review other than this.
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I love Paul Auster' s style of writing, his books are compelling and touching. An in-depth, sliding doors type of book which looks at the same life and the different ways it could've gone. The four stories cycle round in installments, allowing you to compare the different ways each go.
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I was lucky enough to receive this ebook for review, but have to admit that I put off reading it for a while. Not because of its premise but because of the sheer size of the novel. Over 1000 pages! Which is big for a literary fiction.  4 3 2 1 is a story about Archie Ferguson and at the point of his birth his life splits into 4 different versions, all similar but yet vastly different. I love this book. I have never read any Paul Auster before but I very much enjoyed his style to the point where I’m absolutely going to have to get myself an actual hard copy of this book for my shelves. I’ll admit that at times l struggled to keep up with different timelines, but I couldn’t put it down. Another reason for buying an actual copy is because it’s so in-depth that I think each time I re-read this I will discover something new.  The book that keeps giving. Brilliant.
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Paul Auster does it again with this monster book, telling the story of one man's life in four different ways. Featuring his trademark meta-fiction style, this will be a treat for Auster fans, but may be too long and cumbersome for others.
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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, ‘4 3 2 1’ by Paul Auster consists of four different versions of the life of Archibald Issac Ferguson, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1947 (the same year as Auster). Descended from Russian-Jewish immigrants, Archie is the only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson and during his early childhood, random events change the path of his life splitting into four different trajectories - in one version his parents divorce, in another they stay together, in another Stanley dies, and so on. The parallel structure means that each of the seven parts is rewound three times before moving on to the next stage in Archie’s life covering his early childhood through to his coming-of-age in the late 1960s.

You may already be aware that ‘4 3 2 1’ is very long – 866 pages in total which took me just under two weeks to read. I haven’t read any Auster before and his latest novel is partly autobiographical and seems to be a departure from his typically more concise work. However, I was intrigued by the multi-layered concept of exploring alternative lives of the same characters – a “what if” premise I have enjoyed in other novels such as The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. Whereas three strands in Barnett’s novel was manageable, keeping track of four Archies initially seemed more challenging, particularly as the cast of characters is fairly large. However, the four strands are not equal in length which made it slightly easier to follow than I was expecting. Despite the varying outcomes and events which take place, the four versions of Archie Ferguson and his friends and family did sort of merge into one after a while, although I felt differing amounts of empathy for certain characters depending on what was happening to them. This might sound problematic, but it quickly became apparent that seeing the bigger picture is more rewarding (and a lot less taxing) for the reader than keeping tabs on the minutiae of who does what in each chapter. What Auster achieves here is not so much character development, but rather character layering, raising interesting questions regarding how we are shaped by our experiences.

The historical detail is extremely impressive, offering a truly panoramic view of 1950s and 1960s ‘Mad Men’ era America amid so much social and political change. It has to be said that the passages covering the 1968 student protests and some of the in-depth analysis of baseball games, music and literature drag a bit while some sections feel like lengthy lists of newsworthy events that were happening at the time and could easily have been reduced. Overall though, the immersive setting and the execution of the ambitious plotting is very well done.

The ending gives an intriguing explanation as to why the book is structured the way it is. It’s highly unlikely that I would revisit ‘4 3 2 1’ any time soon, but if I ever did, I would certainly read it in a different light with this revelation in mind. Doorstopper novels are often daunting but I’m glad I made the time to read this one, and the fact that I’m even contemplating what a reread could potentially offer is testament to Auster’s skill here. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
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4 3 2 1 is a book about stories and writing, all told from one character’s perspective, that of Archie Ferguson. Although that isn’t strictly true, as there are four versions of Ferguson, each growing up slightly different from the others, in terms of their wealth and family situations. This is an ingenious way to tell a story, as this means not only is Ferguson in each of the four stories but also some of his friends and family also appear in each version of Ferguson’s life. This allows for different interactions with these characters including how important they are to Ferguson as well as when they appear in the stories.

In each version, Ferguson always starts with his Father and Mother being together. His Mother, Rose has in most cases her parents alive and a different relationship with her sister. Ferguson’s Father grew up as the youngest with two older brothers, his own father having died when he was a child and his mother died when Ferguson was very small. From Ferguson’s early years we see how Ferguson’s parents are affected by their own families and it is these early chapters that really shows the divergence in each Ferguson’s path. Although this also means that you have to keep four different stories going in your head, which can be confusing in the beginning.

Some of the chapters, even in the early part of the book, are really hard-hitting, with a large emotional impact not only on Ferguson but for the readers as well. I found that the narrator of each of Ferguson’s lives was felt really strongly at those points, as you are told that something bad is going to happen to a character early on in a chapter and then the rest of the chapter is spent reaching that point, which I found enthralling. Even when you knew something was coming, you didn’t know how or why it would happen, and it was with dread sometimes that I carried on reading, especially in some of the set pieces where you can only hope that the narrator was bluffing, as I didn’t want anything bad to happen to some of these characters.

As mentioned, this is a book about Ferguson’s lives, but it also impacts on some of the historical events happening as he grows up, mentioning political stories of the time and the rise of student activism over the events of the Vietnam war, which can also be seen in the naivety of the characters when it comes to race relations in America at that time. We also see the progression of Ferguson’s need to be a writer, in some he strives to be a reporter, in others a novelist, but in each he is always slightly removed from the action, as he watches what is happening around him, but isn’t always as engaged in the narrative as other characters he interacts with.

To sum up, Auster’s novel is profound in places, with a stunning ending which left me with a lot of thoughts on the construction of novels, but also on how you would exercise to be a better novelist. There is a great mix of the fictional and real-world events fitting together without feeling too heavy-handed. There are moments of true sadness and heartbreak, but also moments where you want to shake Ferguson, to wake him up from his own inward-looking attitudes. This is a story full of lives within lives, sacrifice and commitment, a book I would definitely read again, although maybe next time I would read each Ferguson’s story as a whole to see if that affected the structure or not
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I found this a fascinating novel given both the period detail and the format of four strands of a single life and how small differences led to major changes in his and others lives. I had not realised until group discussion that the author had lived through this period. Found an interesting read.
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I don’t often listen to audio books, but I decided to read “4321” this way because it’s over a thousand pages long and Paul Auster narrates the novel himself. For me, it’s definitely a different experience listening to a book (as opposed to reading a physical copy) and I doubt I would have finished reading this book if I weren’t listening to it. Not all long books justify their lengths and I don’t think “4321” does this - but that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of great things about this novel. I understand why Auster wrote it as such an epic. This allowed him to fully flesh out the central concept of the novel where we follow four different possible lives that a single adolescent boy might have lived if chance had steered him in one direction or another. The novel periodically flips between these alternate timelines so the reader experiences them all simultaneously. It’s effective in realizing the poignancy of Auster’s idea where one small twist of fate can change the course of a person’s life forever, but it weighs the overall novel down with so much detail and repetition (do we really need to read about this boy’s puberty multiple times?) that it makes the experience somewhat tedious.

If I read this novel in physical form I would undoubtedly have become distracted with the less engaging parts like the numerous geeky tangents about baseball and put the novel down. But listening to it I could let my mind drift and then re-engage when it gets to juicer or more fascinating sections. The set up for the novel is excellent where we learn about the different generations preceding the novel’s hero Archibald Isaac Ferguson with its many family deceits that feel like a fantastic Russian drama. At one point in his youth Archibald or “Archie” falls out of a tree and breaks an arm. This causes him to obsessively consider how things might have been different if he'd only reached a bit further of a branch or never climbed up the tree at all. From there, the four different threads of his life branch out. Each diversion also dramatically changes the course of life for his family as well. This plays out most poignantly with his parents who various stay together or separate. For instance, it was fascinating thinking how his father's misfortune might have allowed his mother to develop more as an independent individual and an artist.

However, a difficulty with dividing the story into different possible life routes is that Auster uses each of the four threads to ponder separate large scale social issues. So different threads variously explores issues like racism or sexuality, a sporting life vs the writing life, political engagement vs apathy. While there's nothing wrong with the content of these it began to feel a little too neatly divided for me and it seemed like the author was controlling the course of the story to consider these things rather than letting Archie's life flow in a way that felt more natural. I've heard Auster has claimed Archie's story isn't autobiographical, but the outline of Archie's life as a Jewish boy coming of age in the 60s on the outskirts of NYC does sync quite closely with Auster's. I wonder if this book would have been more successful if he'd written it as an autobiography where he considered several different plausible outcomes for his life if he'd made different choices. This would also make Auster's tangents about baseball or the writing process (he even includes an odd experimental short story which seems like something Auster might have written as a precocious younger man) feel more natural. As Archie comes of age throughout the 60s a heavy amount of references to larger social events are sprinkled throughout the text and sometimes these feel clunkily plonked in as if the author were grabbing at old news headlines found on microfiche. All these points of reference and the many lists of specific cultural films, writers and artists from the time could have been more naturally incorporated into an autobiography.

Like Haruki Murakami, Auster feels like the quintessential young reader's writer. This is the first book I've read by him in more than a decade. I read his novels heavily in my early 20s and that seems like the right time. By that I don't mean his writing isn't sophisticated. I found it really meaningful how “4321” naturally raises a lot of compelling questions about the nature of personality – how much is essential and how much is malleable? Also, the novel gets at the wonder of how a path in life can take such unexpected courses even when we think we can predict which way it will go. There are some excellent nuanced characterizations and psychologically insightful scenes. However, overall the voluminous detail and commitment to heavily fleshing out each thread of Archie's story tested my patience as it felt like it wanted to continue expanding endlessly rather than arching toward a natural end.
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4 3 2 1 explores the idea of destiny by following one man’s life in four different threads. It shows us how the choices that we make have the power to shape our lives in ways we can’t necessarily see. I loved the concept, but would have preferred it if it had been more condensed. This book is bold and complex with an intriguing concept – but it requires stamina.
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spend a lot of time with this book. It is not really a quick read but a very engaging one. The book tells 4 different stories of the same boy Archie Ferguson. The whole book is based on the "what if?" question. I loved that the all the characters in Archie his life are the same in all the stories. Their part they play in his life is different though. I did enjoy that Archie was the same in the stories with small differences. Sports and language were really important to him but influenced his life in different ways. Usually stories like this would totally confuse me but there was something in this book that was working for me. What I really liked is that all chapters are around 50 pages so it is really clear when something new starts.
The one thing that did annoy me were the very long sentences sometimes used. I always loose my concentration with those and some were half a page long. I did have to reread a few of them as I missed did not register.
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4321 is an immense book. Immense in length (the paperback is 1070 pages) and immense in ambition. Ambition that has been fully realised. All the more pleasant a surprise as I have never read Paul Auster before.

We meet Archibald Ferguson, four times over. But first, we have a story of his grandfather, coming to America with an unpronounceable Jewish name, failing to tell the immigration man that their name is Rockefeller. 

So on to Archibald - or Ferguson - as he is known in each version. There are four alternative versions, all similar but with key life events unfolding in four different ways. We have rich Ferguson, poor Ferguson, gay Ferguson and intellectual Ferguson (not necessarily in that order), influenced by events both in and outwith his control, but always with a talent for baseball and a passion for writing. We see formative life in New Jersey/New York in the 1950s through four slightly different eyes. We see the growing liberalism of the 1960s and the emergence of the Vietnam war. Each of these different perspectives, broadly similar but slightly askew, serve to give extremely sharp focus. There are moments of high drama, moments of tragedy. There's a lot of love and heaps of sadness. Some events come as surprises, others are telegraphed dozens of pages ahead. 

The novel is long - it took me over 3 weeks to finish - but it is very readable. The language is accessible, the story lines are transparent. The structure of the novel is that seven periods of time are covered, taking each version of Ferguson in turn. Each section is long enough to become fully immersed in the story, but also long enough that it takes a while to reacclimatise to a previous story line when it cycles back. Happily, Paul Auster puts in plenty of reminders/recaps to help the reader. This is not a novel where the author tries to show how brilliant he is - it is a reader's book that the reader will recognise as brilliant on its own merits. 

The ending - the last few pages of this beast of a book - make sense of the whole exercise. It is a truly devastating ending that will leave an already exhausted reader fighting for emotional survival. It is clever; it is memorable. 

The sheer length of this book and the density of the print will deter purchasers. And once purchased, the book may spend some time sitting on a shelf waiting for the perfect moment that a reader is willing to commit a month to Project 4321. But when that moment comes, seize it!
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Follow the family history of Archie Ferguson, the relationship between his parents, and his childhood to learn all about him. Four versions of Archie's life, the 4321 of the title, flow alongside one another, each containing a similar cast of characters, consistent themes of the arts, writing, sport, movies, sex, set against the background of politics and racial tension. A mammoth and involving text, exciting, detailed and compelling. I view myself as a quick reader but this took me a few weeks of avid reading, and paper and pen to keep track of the 4 stories! But loved it, a feat of writing, to be stored in my head for a long time to come.
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While I loved the concept and construction of this novel, and the wonderful (yet lengthy) character descriptions, I did find it, at over 900 pages, a little long. Perhaps some of the endless detail could have been edited down without taking away from the larger picture. However, for a committed reader, the structure and overall philosophy of 4321 will be well worth the effort. Like Auster's earlier work, I'm sure this will be a well-read award winner for 2017.
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thoughtful and perceptive portrayal of a boy's life in sixties NYC. the prose and the book are a bit long -- i think an editor could have tightened up the prose and shortened the book without sacrificing the essential elements of the story.
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A ‘sliding doors’ story of Archibald Ferguson, born in 1947. We are taken on a tumultuous journey of four different Fergusons, who are essentially all the same boy. 

What an amazing speculative tale of one person’s life. I adored the descriptive prose and imaginings of lives and love. An enjoyable, unique, and tender story rooted in history.
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A sweeping saga set against the backdrop of New Jersey and New York, I'm exhausted from reading this. The journey alone to finish is an achievement. Told in four alternating storylines, we follow the lives of the Ferguson family with all of history, life, love and loss thrown in. 

Ambitious, touching and deeply thought provoking I can see why this was nominated for the Man Booker prize as the pure scale of this is amazing, and the author really captures the intricacies of life throughout the 1960s and 70s and beyond. 

At times I lost track of which Ferguson was narrating, and as always I prefer a more linear format with less narrators. However, this shouldn't take away from what a great tale this is. Read it - if you can manage the 800+ word count!
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My full review is now live: http://theliterarytree.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/everything-could-be-different-4-3-2-1.html

I’ve been meaning to read Paul Auster for a long time, so I was over the moon when I had the chance to review 4-3-2-1*. I know it’s very much a different beast to his other books, firstly, in terms of scale and narrative ambition, but it was well worth persevering with. It’s not one to be rushed, it took me probably 3-4 weeks of my commute but I have missed it since finishing it. It’s an extraordinarily layered coming-of-age tale (x4) – playful, tragic, philosophical and wise. But it’s not so much a character study as the study of an idea and it’s the wit and wisdom and tragedy with which Auster’s omniscient narrator explores this idea that the book really impacts lastingly. There will be a few spoilers in the following paragraphs so it may be best to read this after the book itself.

‘Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now… Yes, anything was possible, and just because things happened in one way didn’t mean they couldn’t happen in another. Everything could be different’ - 1.2

The story begins with Ferguson’s father initially emigrating to the U.S.A – and the comic moment where he forgets the America surname he’d devised, and his German ‘vergessen’ is mistaken for ‘Ferguson’. After the precedent for accident and irony have been set, the story begins with young Archibald Ferguson’s entry into the world, and the narratives divide into four. They have the same biology, the same DNA, they are all born in the same hospital at the same time but then all move to different suburban towns, and the fate of Ferguson’s father is different for each. They ultimately all choose different kinds of writing as their calling and, depending on events within their lives, become political to some degree and foster different relationships, though the relationship with Ferguson’s cousin Amy is fairly consistent with each.

While talking to Granta (https://granta.com/paul-auster-conversation/), Auster laid out these themes and talked about how he wrote the book in a fever, ‘possessed’. He wanted to convey the idea that the ‘world is very precarious’, ‘life becomes death in a flash’ and ultimately, ‘we are all accidents’. The death in a flash reference is quite literal for one of the young Ferguson’s – who is killed by a tree struck by lightning. This is actually based on a real event which has haunted Auster from his childhood, when a boy was electrocuted by lightning next to him. Indeed the Fergusons all encounter random accidents, and three meet unexpected premature ends at different stages of their young lives. Each time is tragic as the omniscient narrator really elucidates the accidental and random misfortune of the moment, yet you’ve been so enmeshed with each Ferguson’s history and prospects and unique relationships, that each one weighs heavily.

Paul Auster


With 4 different narratives marking that coming-of-age experience, there are perhaps moments when things can feel repetitive. As puberty kicks in, you experience Ferguson’s first sexual cravings four times, and these are told in great detail. But Auster is nothing if not thorough in his mission and that is something to be admired ultimately.

Auster is so good at drawing out that human experience and those first realisations about the world as you grow up. I particularly loved the moment that one young Ferguson realises that adults are just as scared as children – something that’s intensely recognisable:

‘His mother looked agitated, more confused and distraught than Ferguson had ever seen her, no longer acting as the rock of composure and wisdom he had always thought she was but someone just like himself, a fragile being prey to sadness and tears and hopefulness, and when she put her arms around him he felt frightened, not just because his father’s store had burned down and there would be no more money for them to live on. But the truly frightening thing was to learn that his mother was no stronger than he was, that the blows of the world hurt her just as much as they hurt him and that except for the fact that she was older, there was no difference between them’ - 1.2

So much of the book is about the fragility and absurdity of existence, but also about living anyway – and not succumbing to the accompanying fear. Often there are brilliant, standalone sentences of the fates/universe/gods responding to events in this small individual’s existence:

‘The gods looked down from their mountain and shrugged.’ 6.3

The indifferent universe is something that I’ve always found intensely interesting in books I’ve read (I am a big Camus fan and fan of post-war existentialism in general) and it’s very much present here. In some ways it makes every action more poignant and important, it’s frustrating and tragic, but it’s also freeing. There’s something grimly satisfying about reading a line like that. 

There are some reviews which have called Auster self-indulgent in this novel, and perhaps that’s true to a degree, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it as a negative. I am fine with writers like Auster, Gaiman, Atwood and indeed any writer being ‘self-indulgent’ so long as what they’re writing stimulates thought and challenges a reader in a productive way – ie. when a reader can reflect on it and draw multiple conclusions. They very premise of 4-3-2-1 is by its nature indulgent, and it’s open about that. Wouldn’t it be indulgent if we had four separate lives we could live and dip into?

‘Ferguson understood that the world was made of stories, so many different stories that if they were all gathered together and put into a book, the book would be nine hundred million pages long.’ 4.4

We should always try to read things which challenge us, and maybe even make us a little uncomfortable at times.

‘No, Ferguson replied, when Artie’s parents asked if he agreed with this boy, but that was what made their conversations so instructive, he said, because every time Mike challenged him he would have to think harder about what he believed in himself, and how could you ever learn anything if you only talked to people who thought exactly as you did’? 4.4

Auster explores sexuality (specifically pansexuality), political feeling, art, love, death and loss and so many of the colours on these spectrums. The reflection sexuality on love and ‘choice’ are poignant. All of the Ferguson’s follow wherever their feelings take them when it comes to love and sex – they very much fall in love with the person.

‘She still didn’t think of herself as a lesbian, she was simply a person in love with another person, and because that other person was beautiful and entrancing and unlike anyone else in the world, what difference did it make if she was in love with a man or a woman’ 4.3

‘Why did a person have to choose between one or the other, why block out one-half of humanity in the name of normal or natural when the truth was that everyone was Both, and people and society and the laws and religions of people in different societies were just too afraid to admit it. As the California cowgirl had said to him three and a half years ago: I believe in my life, Archie, and I don’t want to be scared of it. Brian was scared. Most people were scared, but scared was a stupid way to live, Ferguson felt, a dishonest and demoralizing way to live, a dead-end life, a dead life.’ 5.3

‘It wasn’t that Ferguson felt any enthusiasm for the Democrats, but it was important to make distinctions, he told himself, important to recognise that there were bad things in this flawed world, but also even worse things, and when it came to voting in an election, better to go for the bad over the worse’ 6.1

I delighted in moments like these - that last quote must be a cheeky reference to real-life politics and the situations that the UK and USA have found themselves in in the last couple of years. Indeed – another one:

‘What moment could be more important for the writing of books than a year when the world was on fire—and you were on fire with it?’ 7.4

There’s something to be learned in the individual lives of each Ferguson – in all the banal moments, the icky firsts, the freak accidents, and the existential quandaries. For me, the ending is clever and makes you think back on all you've read, adding further layers and elements of pathos. There's so much in this novel that could be explored and unpicked - but these are my thoughts as of now on a work I certainly admire and still find myself revisiting in my mind. It's a commitment worth making. 

More favourite quotes:

Self-aware narration:

‘There was, as there always is, another side to the story’ 2.1

On music:

‘The need for music that ran through their bodies, which as that point in their lives was no different from the need to find a way to exist in the world’ 2.1

On curiosity:

‘Anger and disappointment could take you just so far, he realised, but without curiosity you were lost’ 2.4

Even with four versions of a live, you’ll never have THE answer – just answers:

‘I’m saying you’ll never know if you made the wrong choice or not. You would need to have all the facts before you knew, and the only way to get all the facts is to be in two places at the same time—which is impossible.’ 2.4

On feeling:

‘We feel what we feel, he wrote, and we’re not responsible for our feelings. For our actions, yes, but not for what we feel’ 3.4

A beautiful moment of self-reflection:

‘Ferguson was beginning to understand how fragile he was, how difficult it was for him to steer his way through even the smallest conflicts, especially conflicts brought on by his own flaws and stupidities. For the point was that he needed to be loved, loved more than most people needed to be loved, entirely loved without respite through every waking minute of his life, loved even when he did things that made him unlovable, especially when reason demanded that he not be loved, and unlike Amy, who was pushing her mother away from her, Ferguson could never let go of his mother.’ 4.3

On life and the self:

‘People die, and the world goes on, and whatever we can do to help each other out, well, that’s what we do, isn’t it?’ 6.1

‘And what did it mean to be himself anyway, he wondered, he had several selves inside him, even many selves, a strong self and a weak self, a thoughtful self and an impulsive self, a generous self and a selfish self, so many different selves that in the end he was as large as everyone or as small as no one, and if that was true for him, then it had to be true for everyone else as well, meaning that everyone was everyone and no one at the same time’ 6.3


‘The world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, travelling toward an altogether different place’ 7.4

*Thank you to Faber for the chance to review 4-3-2-1 through Netgalley.
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Superb intelligent  fiction with a thoroughly engrossing storyline.  I think this book will easily become a modern day classic which will doubtless  be studied by Literature students in the coming years.   Well worth reading and I  highly recommend this title.  Thanks Netgalley for sending me this title.
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