Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

Years ago, prior to blogging, I read "Case Histories" by Kate Atkinson and loved it.  I made multiple vows to myself to read more of her work.  I even went so far as to load a bunch of them on my Kindle.  But as life would have it, I never made it around to this happy stash.  It wasn't until I saw effusive, glowing reviews of Atkinson's latest (and one very convincing e-mail from Jenners) that I downloaded it for my trip to Poland.  It was my first read of the vacation.  Unfortunately for me, I was forced to ride out two whole weeks without being able to discuss it with anyone.  Because this book must be discussed.

Synopsis:  It is a wintery night in 1910 when Ursula Todd is born to a middle class banker and his wife.  Sadly, the roads are snowy and the doctor is unable to arrive in time to save Ursula from the umbilical cord around her neck, and the infant dies.  But that is not the end of Ursula.  She comes back again and again, and over the years, meets her maker in different ways...drowning in a lake, falling off the roof, a fatal case of the flu, a bomb in the London Blitz.  Yet she always gets another chance, starting back on that snowy night in 1910.

While Ursula isn't specifically aware of her previous lives, she has a sense of familiarity and dejavu that allows her to fine tune her life...avoid the water, spurn the rapist, refuse the advances of the future abusive husband.  And her choices greatly affect those beyond her circle of influence.  But to what end?  Ursula begins to get a notion of her destiny after spending a number of lifetimes in the throes of WWII...as a starving mother, as a victim in the basement of a bombed-out building, as a search and rescue worker, as Eva Braun's best friend.  In her bones, Ursula feels the effects of every dead child, missing brother, and dead father.  Can she do anything to make a difference?

My thoughts:  I've never read anything quite this book, and that is the highest compliment I can give.  It is hard to find a story that offers something new.  Sure, I've watched "Groundhog Day" 2 dozen times, and I couldn't put down Lauren Oliver's "Before I Fall", where characters are reliving a certain day until they get it right.  But those reincarnations have a purpose, an end.  Ursula's journey is much more complex and less definitive.

Thanks to Stephen King, I've learned that to enjoy a novel like this one, you can't question the mechanics.  You just go along for the ride, accept and appreciate what is happening.  And what was happening here was whip-smart writing, clever plotting, subtle humor, and a varied and in-depth experience of WWII.  I loved how characters in one life would show up in others, in different roles (even a dog showed up at serendipitous moments).  I became so invested in each life that I was almost sorry to see her die again, although at the same time I was excited to see which path she would take in the next round.

But something about all this vexed me.  Perhaps I was looking too hard for Ursula's purpose in the cosmos.  Perhaps I've watched Groundhog Day too many times.  So when does this all end?  If she perfects her role in the world and acts as fate has intended, will she be allowed to  die at 90 and stay dead?  Do her actions really make a difference?  I never got my answers - maybe I'm not meant to have them.  Perhaps they were there, and I didn't pick up on them.  I've scoured the Internet, reading interviews and insights.  I know Atkinson is smart, and there were hints of Great Insights, but even after re-reading the last chapter or two, I still couldn't get my head around it.

Be that as it may, I immensely enjoyed this read.  Book clubs will have a field day with it. And I've renewed my pledge to read more Atkinson!

4.5 out of 5 stars


16 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I don't know - the whole idea doesn't pull me in. (of course I LOVED the Lauren Oliver book with similar theme so what am I talking about...)

Michelle (my books. my life.) said...

That is exactly how I felt about it. I thought once she achieved a perfect life, it would end, but her life just kept restarting. I think maybe that's the point - that there is no perfect life so she will be trying forever?

bermudaonion said...

Once I figured out what was going on, I enjoyed this too but I get what you mean. The ending wasn't totally satisfying.

JoAnn said...

The only Atkinson I've read is Behind the Scenes at the Museum - liked it well enough, but wasn't bowled over - and I have Case Histories on my shelf.

I was dying to read this, but when it finally came from the library I wasn't able to get to it. Now, I'll probably wait until it's out in paperback and just buy it. Glad to know you enjoyed it so much.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

Yeah. I think it's one that you have to go with. I loved reading it, and what she learned from each life and seeing how everything changed. It was my first Atkinson and I am looking forward to checking out some of her other books as well.

Jackie Bailey said...

You liked this a lot more than I did. I didn't enjoy the way it kept repeating everything, but then I didn't enjoy that aspect of the Lionel Shrivel (forgotten the title of it now!) you loved too. I think this means I should avoid the Lauren Oliver too!

bkclubcare said...

I loved this one, too, so very much and our book club - most of them didn't even bother to finish it cuz they were bored or lost. UGH! I just loved Ursula and hadn't found a character in such a long time that I cared for and cheered for. You are right about it being "much more complex and less definitive" - I didn't want to keep asking any more questions and hope that she did finally find some peace. It has almost become a litmus test book - if I meet you and you didn't like it, I am just not sure we can be friends. (not really, I have lovely friends who didn't like it...)

Iliana said...

Great review, Sandy! The premise doesn't really appeal to me but I keep reading such great reviews that I think I need to give it a try one day.

Hey, I want to read that! said...

I'm not sure if I'm a full fledged Kate Atkinson fan, I'm still trying. I've hear many good things about this one but I'm afraid the ending might be a problem for me as well. Ah well, I may not read it right away but if you were still happy you read it I think I will have to get to it. (Glad to be back into the world of book blogging, I've missed you take on books)

Anna said...

I've heard the same thing, that the purpose of her many lives is uncertain. Still, it sounds so good, and I can't wait to read it. I've set it aside to read on my Sept. vacation, but I'm itching to pick it up now!

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I can't wait to talk to you about this in person. I totally agree with everything you've said here and I almost feel like I "get" it ... but then, no I don't.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I loved Case Histories, so this one is high on my list!

Literary Feline said...

I've only ever read Case Histories by this author and I loved it. I don't know why I am hesitant to try this one . . . It's getting such good reviews. You have me convinced, Sandy. I need to add this one to my TBR pile.

Darlene said...

I've got the audio CD on hold at the library and have been waiting for it forever. For some reason I can't buy the digital one in Canada. Hopefully I get it soon because I'd love to listen to it.

Julie P. said...

This book blew me away! How do you come up with this, nevertheless pull it off?

stacybuckeye said...

A friend sent me this one so I have to read it, but it seems like it's going to take some effort on my part. I don't have the energy for it right now. And the ending sounds like it could ruin the book for me!