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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What I'm Reading: Life After Life

As I mentioned last week, the best book I read this year was Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  In fact, I went so far as to call it a perfect book.  And for me it was, but as you read this review, please keep in mind that Life After Life is an extremely unique story.  It is definitely not a traditional novel with a beginning, middle and end (more on this below), so you need to be careful as to who you give it to.  Yes, I think it is perfect, but I also know for many readers, this book could easily be their least favorite book-- ever.

Let me give you the sound bite set up because, one, it is all you need to say to someone to feel out whether or not this book is for him or her, and two, the sound bite set up is all I am really going to give you on plot. This is NOT a plot dependent story.  In fact, having no set plot is the point of the book.

Okay, Becky sound bite:
A young woman takes a shot at Hitler and dies.  On the next page, the same woman, Ursula, is born stillborn on a snowy night in England in February, 1910. On the next page, the same woman is born again on the same February 1910 evening, but this time, she lives. Life After Life is the story of Ursula’s life as it starts, stops and begins over and over again during the first half of the 20th Century.
Even read slowly, this takes no more than 25 seconds and it describes the entire book and its appeal.

Life After Life has everything I love in a book: interesting well developed characters, a well drawn historical setting, a magical element, and a macabre undertone.  Since Ursula is reborn more times that I can remember, the novel is an interesting mix of historical fiction and alternative history.  We watch the war play out in England and a bit in Germany, with Ursula’s own personal choices making changes to the lives of others.

Because the reader is following the entire story only through Ursula’s eyes, this is a character driven story with a domestic fiction angle as well.  Lots of time is spent describing the domestic details of Ursula’s life.  And because we know much more than Ursula at times, not only because we have seen her live the same scene previously, but also, because we know that historical things like the 1918 Influenza, WWII, The Blitz in London, etc.. are all coming too, that double whammy of knowledge makes this intricately plotted story even more layered.  We have Ursula’s story, laid over history as we know it, laid over the alternative history Ursula creates by making a different choice the next time she is reincarnated. It is a fabulously woven tale in this way.

With all of the starting and stopping of the plot of Ursula’s "life”  the story I am worried people might be thinking this is a hard story to get into.  It was not.  Atkinson develops a nice pattern and reuses key phrases to keep the reader going.  I was hooked after the first 2 dozens pages as Ursula begins to live long enough to have a personality.  Then I fell into rhythm with Atkinson, and I began to compulsively turn the pages to see where both author and character would be taking me next. If the idea of this book intrigues you but you are worried about execution, I will tell you, the deft execution of this seemingly gimmicky plot is what makes it great.

I should also note that there is very little time spent by Ursula worrying about deja vu.  Rather, Atkinson hints at the fact that somewhere deep down, Ursula is aware that “she has been here before,” but that is not the point of the book.  This is not Groundhog Day, where the character is forced to keep reliving his life over until he “gets it right;” rather this is a novel that contemplates the infinite number of ways your life can be lived depending on the choices you make each and every day.  And not just you.  Some of the stories of Ursula’s life are decided by others, such as the many times we see her born and either make it through her first night, or, many times, not due to the choices of others.

Finally, the ending.  I think it is absolutely perfect! What I love about the way Atkinson tells the entire story here is that there is no beginning or end.  We begin as Ursula is taking a shot at Hitler and getting killed herself in the process and we end with the uncertainty of what will become of Ursula now. Will she be reborn again, or is she done?  Who knows.  But we are left with a perfect scene that leaves us content that it doesn’t matter. As far as the book is concerned, the ending came out just right and the story is done.

Now, all this being said, I am wise to that fact that this lack of a beginning and an end will drive some readers crazy. So while I LOVED Life After Life, I readily admit, it is not for everyone.  I hope this review helps you to decide for yourself or your patrons if this novel is worth a try.

Three Words That Describe This Book: intricately plotted, alternative history, thought provoking

Readalikes:  2013 also saw the publication of another intricately plotted and thought provoking story where the main character experiences different version of her life.  That book is The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer.

As I described the book on NoveList:
Greta begins the novel devastated by the double deaths of her twin brother and life partner. In order to get over her depression, Greta has electro-shock treatments that send her time-traveling and experiencing life with the two men in different eras.
The Greer book is less convoluted, but if you liked this idea of reliving your life and having a second (or third) try at it, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a good readalike choice.

Other titles that play with the idea of a life lived over again are The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Replay by Ken Grimwood.

Connie Willis’ epic, award winning, 2 book series that allows historians from the future to come back to England during WWII using time travel-- Blackout and All Clear-- make for a great readalike for those who enjoyed the time period and alternative history aspects of Life and Life.

But most of all, Life after Life reminded me of 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  Click here for my review of this alternative history masterpiece.  Both are intricately plotted, thought provoking, and macabre.  But more importantly, they both have perfect endings.  So many great books are ruined by authors trying to tie everything up, but in Life After Life and 11/22/63 Atkinson and King resist that instinct and just leave us with a perfect final scene.  No, we don’t have all the answers with these endings, but so what, we are content.


Mamie said...

I was so disappointed with this book (audio version). I felt like it was one of those children's books where you pick your own ending or a book put together from scraps of discarded material as a parallel novel was being written.

Becky said...

Thanks for your comment Mamie. I can totally see how the book wouldn't work on audio as well.

But I love to have someone tell me my favorite was a disappointment to them because it just proves my overall RA philosophy that the best book for one reader will not work for all readers.

I hope you chime in with your favs in the next few weeks of Monday Discussions