What If?: Books Like Sliding Doors

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

What if one little thing in your life was different, and it changed everything that came after? That’s the premise of the 1998 film Sliding Doors, in which Gwyneth Paltrow either does or doesn’t miss a tube train after getting fired, and so does or doesn’t catch her boyfriend cheating on her. We follow these two versions of her life, though (spoiler alert) she ends up with the same guy in both.

That’s definitely one way to look at fate — that no matter what choices we make in what in reality is our one and only life, we’ll be led to the person or the destiny we were made for. But it’s not the only philosophy explored in this kind of fiction.

In the years since Sliding Doors, various books have been published exploring the idea of one small moment, one decision, or one circumstance, and its ripple effect on one or several lives. Sometimes, that comes in the shape of one person making a split-second decision; other times, we meet women from the same families whose lives turn out differently because of one choice or one parent. Here are a few of those books.

Great Books Like Sliding Doors

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett cover

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

In this 2015 UK bestseller, Eva and Jim meet at university in Cambridge in 1958. What happens from there is explored in three different scenarios spanning the following decades — so it’s also a great read for anyone who enjoyed another British bestseller, One Day by David Nicholls.

cover of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Aktinson

Published in 2013, this beautifully written novel about a woman born in 1910 won multiple awards. It follows the life of Ursula, or rather her lives. In one scenario, she doesn’t live past babyhood, while in several others, she dies of the 1918 flu epidemic. Eventually, she makes it through to the 1930s and beyond, playing a pivotal role in geopolitical world events.

The Vanishing Half book cover

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This sophomore novel by bestselling author Brit Bennett explores the impact of a life decision through the lens of twins, both light-skinned Black women. Stella chooses to pass as white and leave her old life and family behind, while Desiree stays, and they reconnect much later. Twins make for fascinating “what if” storytelling, since those stories start off with two characters whose lives could be assumed to be heading in the same direction. (Though of course we know that both life and fiction are more complex than that!)

The Rehearsals by Annette Christie cover

The Rehearsals by Annette Christie

What happens when your wedding rehearsal goes disastrously wrong? Maybe you break up. But maybe, if you’re Megan and Tom, you get stuck in a Groundhog Day style time loop, and you have to relive the day, over and over again. What if the wedding day never arrives? And what if it does?

Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin book cover

Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin

This one is for you if you like offbeat novels! You might know Gabrielle Zevin from her other books, Young Jane Young and The Storied Life of AJ Fikry. This one is a love story that keeps you guessing as to what’s real and what isn’t — that’s the Sliding Doors of it all — and asks us to think about the different versions of ourselves throughout our lives.

Maybe in Another life by Taylor Jenkins Reid book cover

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s third novel is one of the books that is most like Sliding Doors. While Hannah is out with her friend Gabby in Los Angeles, she bumps into Ethan, her old boyfriend from high school. When Gabby is ready to go, Ethan offers to take Hannah home later, and her life plays out two different ways according to whom she takes up on the offer of a ride.

Book cover for What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been by Holly Miller

Like Sliding Doors and like Maybe in Another Life, this book explores the question of whether there is such a thing as a fate-determined soulmate. Lucy has to decide between staying by the sea and pursuing her dream of becoming a writer or moving to London — and in each location, she has a shot at love with a different guy.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones book cover

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

This 2011 novel by prizewinning author Tayari Jones explores the relationship between two girls, only one of whom knows that they have the same father. The secret family versus the public family is an interesting take on parallel lives, and O Magazine calls this book “full of perverse wisdom and proud joy.”

Clap When You Land cover

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Another take on the “secret sisters” storyline is explored in this novel-in-verse by acclaimed author Elizabeth Acevedo. When the father they unknowingly share dies in a plane crash, the two young women — one in the Dominican Republic, the other in the U.S. — learn of each other and have new realties as well as grief to reckon with.

If you love thinking about existential questions, these books will scratch that itch. And if you want more book recommendations based on movies, check out 32 Cross-Media Recommendations: Book and Movie/TV Pairings.