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!

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