Let me preface this review with a confession: I was really excited when A Witch in Time, the debut novel by Constance Sayers, was about to be published in February 2020. Then I was ecstatic when I won it in a Goodreads giveaway! But the version I won was an ebook, and I’ve never been good about reading ebooks… Fast forward to the end of 2020, and I decided it was high time I read this novel. So as a holiday present to myself, I just bought the hardcover version of A Witch in Time, and I devoured it! I wish I’d read it a year ago, but at the same time, I’m happy I got to spend the last few days with it. It’s exactly what I needed right now.
A Witch in Time starts in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Helen Lambert has just gone through a divorce, and she goes on a blind date with a man named Luke Varner. But although she’s certain they’ve never met, Luke seems to know a lot about her… including secret thoughts she’s never shared. He claims that she’s lived three lives before, and he’s been there with her in all of them. Helen assumes he’s a lunatic until she starts having vivid dreams of her past lives, dreams that feel more like lived memories.
From 1890s France to 1930s Hollywood to 1970s Los Angeles to now, Helen has lived tumultuous and brief lives, and now in 2012, her time is running out again. How can she break this curse and finally live out a long, normal life?
A Witch in Time is an incredible novel, both intimate and far-reaching in scope. The first chapter jumps right into the action, which actually felt a bit too sudden for me. This is a rare case where I would have liked a few extra pages of setup before things started happening. It’s a bit sink or swim, but once you get into it, the writing and story are immersive and powerful.
Throughout the novel, we get dual timelines: Helen in 2012, and one of her past selves from decades before. We work through her past lives chronologically, first spending 150 or so pages with a farm girl named Juliet in 1890s France, then with the actress Nora in 1930s Hollywood, and finally with Sandra, the keyboardist in a band in 1970s Los Angeles. Each time we focus in on a different past life, it’s a bit like starting a new book: You have to get through the setup and get to know new characters all over again. Even so, it doesn’t feel tedious or overwhelming in this novel, in part because of the parallels across Helen’s four lives.
Helen’s past selves face a lot of trauma — especially Juliet and Nora — and I was surprised at how heavy this book became. You’ll definitely want to review the content warnings, because a lot of tough themes come up here, and it’s often shown on page. (See a list of content warnings at the very end of this post.) Indeed, it can be a hard read at times, and I found it to be very emotional.
It isn’t just a diverse range of traumas, though. A Witch in Time also offers an array of different settings and themes. In France, Juliet starts off as a farm girl and the muse for a famous painter who lives nearby. We get to experience the Belle Époque and the grandeur that it encompassed: circuses and magic and witches, wealthy Parisians going to the theater, the visual and musical arts of France at the time. But then we fast forward to Nora, a young woman trying to make it as an actress in Old Hollywood. She meets and develops relationships with other actors and directors, but she also runs from a dangerous past. In the 1970s, Sandra is a woman in an up-and-coming band, playing music in the era of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Even Helen gets her own unique setting: In Washington, D.C., she works in media and interviews politicians and celebrities. I loved how many themes I could enjoy in this novel and the parallels drawn between characters living in each era.
Helen’s character is always a bit different in each era, but she also has continuity. Juliet begins as a naive girl, reckless and emotional, yet also intelligent and skilled. As Nora, her character is less naive, and she’s forced to be tough, but she just wants to follow her dreams, live her life, and find happiness along the way. Sandra has a harsher outlook, and is more intent on resolving the issues of her past. Across the three of them and on to Helen, it almost feels like one woman growing up, even if they’re four different people. But with their lives always ending too soon, none of them have a chance to grow wise in their own life. This contributes to the feeling of continuity between them.
In her curse, Helen is always paired with a man, and their love is always doomed to fail. From the painter Auguste to the film director Billy to the photographer Rick and finally to Helen’s ex-husband Roger, this couple will never find lasting happiness. Both are cursed to be reincarnated, and every life will be one of heartbreak and suffering. Each time, Roger (or his past self) is both an early love and a sort of villain. But while Helen’s character always remembers her past lives eventually — after it’s too late to steer clear of Roger — Roger’s character doesn’t seem to be so enlightened.
And what of Luke Varner? Or rather, Lucian Varnier? He’s the one who points out Helen’s past lives before she has any idea what he’s talking about. But unlike the other two in this curse, he’s not exactly being reincarnated; his situation is a tad different. Like the Roger character, Luke can also be viewed as both a love interest and a villain. But which side will win out?
A Witch in Time is a sweeping novel, and with its many themes, characters, and settings, it’s one that will keep your interest the full time. There’s sadness in here, but there’s also joy. I do wish we got to see more happy times, especially with Luke, but I also like how it ends with a bit of an open door. Could there be a sequel? I certainly hope so! This is a novel that will stay with me, and I’d be happy to continue the story in another book or two.
I adored A Witch in Time. It’s an emotional ride, and I felt fully invested in all of the characters. If you’re in for a wide-ranging story of reincarnation and curses — and if the many content warnings don’t ward you off — this is a gorgeous novel to spend some time with.
I’ll definitely be reading more from Constance Sayer. Her second book, The Ladies of the Secret Service, is due out March 23rd, and I can hardly wait. Stay tuned for my review of that in the next few months!
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Sorry, I don’t have a way to hide this section, so please don’t look if you don’t want any spoilers and don’t want to know the content warnings. But if you would like to know what difficult topics are in A Witch in Time, here is a list:
- Abuse (emotional, physical, and verbal)
- Curses and dark magic
- Drug use and overdosing
- Rape (statutory rape and gang rape)
- Teen pregnancy