Photo of Goldstein-Love with her arms crossed
Yael Goldstein-Love. Credit: Laura Turbow

Yael Goldstein-Love remembers the precise moment she got the idea for her new novel, The Possibilities.

The Berkeley writer was in Washington, D.C., a city she had just moved to with her partner and their infant son. Exhausted from lack of sleep, uncertain about living in a town where she didn’t know anyone and distraught that her relationship was disintegrating, Goldstein-Love was barely holding things together.

Book cover with an illustration of an upside down house and the words "What if the life you didn't live is as real as the one you did?"

It was a cold day and Goldstein-Love had bundled up her son to take him to the pediatrician. When she reached the car, however, she realized the keys were in the apartment many flights up. Retrieving them meant climbing up a set of steep stairs lugging her heavy infant in tow. For a brief instant, Goldstein-Love considered leaving her son on the street while she dashed inside.

“In that moment, I had a vivid image of turning around and he’s gone,” said Goldstein-Love, who spoke to Berkeleyside from Cape Cod right before she embarked on her book tour. “And in my mind, he was back in Berkeley. And I’m in DC. He’s where I’m longing to be. But I can’t reach him. And I knew, right then that this is how I write my way through this experience. But instead of it being geographical slippage, it’s reality slippage.”

The Possibilities, which People magazine characterized as “a powerful page-turner with deep wisdom,” is a literary sci-fi novel about maternal love, angst and the multiverse. Set in present-day Berkeley, the book, Goldstein-Love’s second, is filled with scenes set in familiar places such as the steep hiking trail up Claremont Canyon, the Baker & Commons café on College Avenue, and the CVS pharmacy on Telegraph Avenue. Goldstein-Love will talk about the book at Mrs. Dalloway’s Books at 7 p.m. on July 27.

At the novel’s center is Hannah, a successful horror writer who has used her earnings to buy a sprawling house in the Berkeley Hills with sweeping views of the Bay. Hannah is an unsettled and anxious mother — and with good reason. Eight months earlier, her son Jack had almost died at birth. A mucus plug blocked his airwaves and for 10 minutes, before doctors discovered the trouble, he wasn’t breathing. While lying in her hospital bed, Hannah had a distinct vision of a limp, blue, baby boy with eyes that would never open.

The difficult birth has turned Hannah into the type of mother who loves her son deeply but worries about every aspect of his life. Will he die in his sleep? Roll off his changing table? Choke on a grape? Her concerns make it almost impossible for her to leave Jack’s side. She imagines terrible scenarios, a condition her husband Adam calls “too much seeing.” When her paranoia becomes unbearable, Adam announces he is leaving.

Then Hannah’s worst nightmare comes true: Jack disappears from his crib. But he hasn’t been kidnapped. Hannah has accessed a parallel reality, one where Jack died at birth and no longer exists. To her horror, Hannah realizes she has a special, terrible power that allows her to travel among different versions of her life.

The result is a taut, gripping thriller that has Hannah racing between universes to bring Jack back home. To succeed, it turns out, Hannah must confront her past, particularly feelings of abandonment from her mother’s early death. Only when she overcomes her fears and confronts her traumas can she find the key to bringing Jack home.

While Goldstein-Love doesn’t have the superpower to travel through multiple universes, she drew on many of her own experiences to write The Possibilities. A mucus plug blocked her son’s breathing and Goldstein-Love and her partner spent a horrifying hour not knowing if he would survive. (He is now a thriving 6-and-a-half-year-old). The scare made her a hypervigilant mother, keenly tuned to every action of her son.

Goldstein-Love started a doctoral program in clinical psychology at the Wright Institute while she was writing the book and soon found one professional interest bleeding into the other. She decided to examine maternal angst for her dissertation. Many social scientists have studied maternal depression or anger, but few have looked at maternal anxiety, said Goldstein-Love. For the qualitative part of her thesis, Goldstein-Love put out a call on social media asking to interview women about their maternal anxieties. She got about 100 responses within a few hours and hundreds overall.

Goldstein-Love anticipated talking to each mother for about 90 minutes but found that some women had so much to say the calls lasted two to three hours. There is so much to worry about, they told her: climate change, dying before their children grow up, gun violence, racism, a feeling of being a not-good-enough mother. Goldstein-Love is finishing her dissertation and plans to open a private therapy practice in Berkeley in the fall, but she hopes her work on maternal angst expands society’s understanding of the issue’s pervasiveness.

Goldstein-Love, who makes her home in the Elmwood, said she much calmer than when her son was first born. Now she is just like “a pretty normal Jewish mom.” But that sense of needing to protect him, particularly from physical danger, hasn’t disappeared completely.

“We’ve been at Cape Cod, and we were swimming in the bay, and (my son) is having a great time,” she said. “And the whole time I’m scanning for shark fins. Like there is not a single second that I’m not scanning.”