Thursday, August 01, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life has gotten so much buzz and so much critical attention. My book club picked this one for our July discussion book, and going into it, I wasn't terribly impressed with the premise. I've read lots of books that seem to follow in this same vein...namely The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson; Pilgrim, by Timothy Findley; Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray. Ahem. Sorry, but it's true. 

Life After Life is the story of Ursula Todd, and she lives her life repeatedly. If she dies, she's born to the same parents under similar circumstances. Her choices in each life dictate the path her life takes and the outcome for her family and some of those individuals around her. 

The book seems to move in "waves" because that's the best way I can describe it. The first quarter of the book is focused largely on her childhood lives -- the ones that end before she gets too far along. Then a wave of lives that last into the teens and early twenties. And finally a wave of lives that focus on her twenties, and in some cases, into retirement. 

Let me just say, without a doubt, this book is well written and exceptionally creative. No life is just the same. Each life is tailored only recapping what's really important or will have the largest outcome on Ursula's experiences. But I often found that as I really got into a life, it would end. And we'd start over, thus some of the frustration.

My bigger frustration was in not really knowing what Atkinson wanted me to get out of this book. On the one hand, it seemed like Atkinson might be making a statement on the randomness of life. One bad choice could send a person careening into misery. While another choice, as insignificant as it might seem, could make all the difference in a happy and fulfilling life. In some way, it seemed a little depressing. There's nothing one can really do about it. It's all chance. A very naturalistic view, in my opinion. 

While Ursula would have flashes of deja vu and strong feelings she couldn't explain that would guide her choices in later lives, she wasn't fully cognizant of having lived before. She wasn't on some divine journey to be a better person. She just existed. Over and over. 

I still don't know what I'm supposed to do with it all. When I look at this book as an interesting writerly exercise, I actually like it much better. The author has innumerable choices. She can take the character down infinite paths, and this book really drives the point home. 

I'm usually a big fan of ambiguity, but in this case it just sort of annoyed me. It's a beautifully-written and expertly plotted book. Alas, it's one I appreciated more than I enjoyed. Four out of five stars for great writing. But it left me questioning and pondering--another reason I gave it a high rating even though I had quibbles with it. 

Fair warning: the depictions of war in this novel were exceedingly hard for me to read. Partially because they were repeated and then repeated some more with only slight variations--none of them palatable. Some things Ursula could not change. Some people she could not save. Ursula works in her district in London to help rescue the injured and uncover the deceased after the all-too-regular bombings during the Blitz. So so hard to read. So very dreadful. Of all the books I've read about WWII, this one drove home the experience of living in London like no other. It was truly heartbreaking. 

If you've read Life After Life, I'd love to have your take on it! Leave a comment below (spoiler warnings, please!) or e-mail me personally. :) 

Pub. Date: April 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Format: E-book
ISBN: 9780316176484
Source: Library.

To watch me struggle through this review in the flesh, check out the video review below!

44 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this one. Maybe because I haven't read any books in this sort of style? I was afraid that it would come across as too gimmicky but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. I do understand the frustration though! There were lives that I wanted to hear more about.

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    1. I thought it would be gimmicky, too. But yeah, the writing was fantastic. It just left me with more questions than answers. And I hate to complain about that -- I usually love it. But this one still ranked high with me. I'm looking forward to trying more Atkinson!

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  2. I had the same problem with the book as you. I could see the writing was very well done but the whole set up of the stories starting over and over again was not my cup of tea.

    I did however experience some moments after reading the book that I was considering choices I made in life wondering what I would do different if I could change it. Maybe that was the goal, to be more conscious of what you do?

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    1. It was tiresome, for sure. I thought she handled it cleverly, but again that makes me appreciate the book even though I didn't enjoy it so much. And I know what you mean. I've done the same thing in my own life, considering my choices. Especially after having read this one.

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  3. I have this one on my TBR list but haven't gotten it yet because my library didn't yet have a copy. After reading your review, I'm not sure that I will enjoy it at all. Although it sounds like an interesting premise, I think that I would be annoyed by reading about the lives over and over without a "point".

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    1. It's definitely worth a try. The writing is well done and the plotting is well done, I was just left with more questions than answers and while that isn't always a bad thing for me, there were facets of this that seemed to remain frustratingly unexamined.

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  4. Oh, sorry to hear this one didn't quite hit the mark for you. I read it in April when it came out and LOVED it, but like Jennifer said above, I hadn't really read anything similar before so perhaps that was why I fell so hard for it.

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    1. It's good writing and plotting fo' sho. Something just didn't click all the way for me. Just a partial click. :)

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  5. I've not read this one, though the grisly war bits don't really endear me to the idea...

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    1. Yeah, it was tough and I usually don't have too much trouble with things like that.

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  6. I can see why it would be annoying. As a Christian, and a flawed one at that, I prefer to think that He is directing my life despite my best intentions. I wonder what Kate would have to say about that?!

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    1. Exactly. That's why I think this book and its meaning and appeal will hinge largely on one's personal experience and expectations.

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    2. I think it hinges on the reader's interpretations as well, now that I've read it. One commenter on my post said Ursula may be reincarnated and is working her way to Nirvana. Um...nope, not for me.

      I thought about Shakespeare writing the coward dies a thousand deaths, the valiant only one. Bit, I don't think that applies to Ursula, either. She wasn't a coward as much as a victim.

      Which brings me full circle to your point that some of life is so random. This, I think, may be Atkinson's biggest point.

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  7. It's good to see a balanced review of this one, most of the other ones I have seen have been gushing. It's nice to see some criticism too.

    I'm not religious, so I quite like that there was no direction to her journey.

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    1. Yeah, I just couldn't gush about this one. lol Too many iffy bits for me. And as I was saying to Bellezza above, I think the reactions to this one will vary wildly based on personal beliefs.

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  8. I just finished this one FIVE MINUTES ago (no really) and I'm feeling very much the same way that you are. I thought I had a good handle on where it was going but now I just have no idea how I feel. Can't wait to discuss it on Friday in more detail. But overall my assessment is similar--fantastic writing exercise but tiresome and frustrating. I don't think I'm in the 4 range...sadly closer to 3.

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    1. Yay! Glad I'm not alone. Enjoyed discussing this one at book club. We had a good discussion even though we all felt much the same way about it.

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  9. I have not read this one yet, though I've read her other ones. This one does sound a bit tedious to me --- so I have not put it on my TBR list. Not sure the premise interests me too much. But I enjoyed your review and vlog. cheers. http://www.thecuecard.com/

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    1. What did you think of her other books? Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  10. I've actually given up on trying to review this because I honestly cannot put my feelings/opinions into actual words. I loved the book but I did find it a slog until I'd got into it proper. But I have such a love of all of Atkinson's work I would never say a bad word against her. Unless she wrote an awful novel, of course.

    One of the most successful things about this novel for me was the description of war. War writing is a little obsession of mine and because I have studied it so much I am quite hard to please when it comes to descriptive accuracy. I think she got it pretty good.

    I enjoyed this review, you've put it all so much more succinctly than I can right now!

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    1. LOL, it was very hard to review. It picked up some when I got further in, and when I stopped fighting the repetition. It broke my reading spirit, basically. OK, maybe not that dramatic, but you know what I mean.

      Definitely a successful description of war. It was relentless, but so was the bombing.

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  11. I've had a copy of Life After Life for a few months and I definitely plan on reading it, I'm still just waiting for some of the hype to die down. In general it seems like the type of book I'd like, I just feel like I will be worn out by "starting over" so many times.

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    1. Yeah, I wouldn't have picked it up right now if it hadn't been for my book club. I was definitely fearful of the hype.

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  12. I wonder if it worked better for me because I did it on audio - it always takes me longer to get through an audiobook than it would if I was just sitting down and reading the paper copy, so I think perhaps the repetitive parts didn't seem as annoying because it was almost always a day or so in between. Interesting. I definitely think it's one of the more thought provoking novels I've read in a while. (I actually reviewed this today, too!)

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    1. I can see it being very enjoyable on audio. I will check out your review!

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  13. I don't think I've read any books with this premise but I've seen Groundhog Day and shows with episodes that do the same thing (like X-files, it's actually one of my favorite episodes but annnyway). I'm not a huge fan of it in general, so I'm not sure how I'd like this book. I am kind of interested in the WWII parts because it sounds so real and it's an aspect I haven't read a lot about, but it also sounds really difficult. I'm not sure if I'll ever read this one, but your review was so thoughtful, like always!

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    1. Thank you! If you decide to try it, I'd definitely like to know your thoughts on it. Despite my negative feelings, it's highly discussable.

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  14. I like the way you describe her stories going in waves -- that's about the best way I can think to describe it. I loved the writing in this one enough to let some of the other issues go, but in thinking back I agree with you that it's hard to know quite what the "message" of the book actually was.

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    1. Thanks! That was the best I could come up with, too. The writing was great but there were just too many facets of it that bugged me.

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  15. Great review, you put a lot of what I thought of it here. You described the stories as waves, and I described them as playing a video game and dying and being brought back to a certain point in the game. That, and compared it to an episode of Buffy.

    In terms of what to do with the novel, it does offer itself up for a lot of existentialist thinking. However, for me, that would be in spite of the novel, rather than due to it. I found it tedius after a while; the novelty of it wore off and I think it was far too long.

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    1. I love you comparison to the video game -- dying and coming back. That's exactly right!

      Agreed that it was quite long and tedious.

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  16. I agree about the parts in London during WII. They were very powerful. I think Atkinson does such a good job of making you care about each and every character, so you do feel it when some of them can't be saved.

    I wonder if Atkinson left the novel open on purpose. You can sort of conclude from it what you will about the existence of fate or the importance of choice. None of it is explicitly said, so it's really up to you and your experiences.

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    1. I agree with you there. Even though it was a jumpy plot, I definitely felt like the characters were nicely fleshed out. I was irked over and over about the bunch in her building.

      SPOILERS....
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      I'm sure she did leave it ambiguous on purpose. She could've tidied it up very easily -- even if she left the Hitler story line as the last "life." It annoyed me that the story progressed past that point.

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  17. I'm glad to see you liked the writing, and while I usually don't like ambiguity, I'm intrigued when it comes to this one. I'm dying to read it, and not sure if I can hold off until my Sept. vacation. ;)

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  18. I have a confession to make: this book was a DNF for me. I just got so bored with the repetition and didn't know where it was going. . .

    -Rebecca @ Love at First Book

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    1. If it wasn't a book club selection, it might've been a DNF for me, too. I seriously thought about it.

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  19. I'm not sure that this is a book that's high on my TBR list. I'm sort of interested but I think the repetition would get on my nerves fast.

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    1. It's definitely discussable, though very hard on the nerves. lol

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  20. I enjoyed it, particularly the first half. And the baked goods!
    http://jennybakes.blogspot.com/2013/07/baked-goods-in-life-after-life-by-kate.html

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    1. I'll check out your post, Jenny!

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  21. I agree. I checked it out from the library and read a couple of chapters. I've seen this thing done before, I thought. Took it back. Saw a copy at ALA and couldn't resist. Now my balloon is deflated again. Why bother, I'm thinking.

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    1. It's definitely worth a try. I'd be interested in your thoughts, for sure.

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  22. I have seen this one around a lot but haven't felt any pull to read it. I'm just not terribly intrigued by the overall plot of the novel. I have a feeling I would have similar struggles as you have had with it.

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