Book Review: Life After Life, By: Kate Atkinson
This was a book my mind had fun chewing on when I was not in the midst of reading it, and because of this I gave it four out of five stars. I thought about this book a great deal, not because of the characters or the ideas posed by the author, but mainly because her plot was so much fun to think about. I enjoyed trying to anticipate what would happen during Ursula’s next go round, much like I would a mystery novel.
What I liked about the book:
1) I had a terrific time following the lives of Ursula Todd. Her mother, Sylvie, I could do without and I was grateful when the main point of view shifted from her to Ursula. In the middle of the book I couldn’t wait to see how Ursula would die next. Morbid, yes, but there is a good deal of morbidity in the book.
2) I liked watching Ursula become conscious of her many lives. It was interesting to see her evolve from someone things happened to into someone who made deliberate choices.
3) I really enjoyed the historical view into the civilian life of living in London during the air raids. Then seeing the opposite view of civilian life in Berlin before Russia’s takeover. The author’s historical research really came to life, depicting everything from food, to the sounds of explosions, the routines of the people who remained in London, and the hardships suffered in both Britain and Germany. She did not hold back showing the raw brutality of being a civilian casualty during war.
What I didn’t like about the book:
1) The philosophical journey, while a bit much for me, was still appropriate to the book. I was most bothered by Ursula’s first meeting with her psychologist. It was not believable to me for a ten-year-old girl to grasp, have an interest, and carry forward the philosophical information posed by Dr.Kellet. It also failed my logic test for an educated man to be talking about such things with a child.
2) The maturity of Ursula begins in each of her lives around the age of eighteen. I found her remarkably worldly at this stage as the book progresses. I understand the carry over and impressions her previous lives are suppose to have on her current, but it again did not seem logical for her to pass from life to life with an advanced philosophical understanding, while still being naïve as to why men made inappropriate advances towards her. I found it odd the sexual trauma she endures after her “first time” did not leave a strong enough impression to transcend to her future lives, aside from when she avoids the offenders. Shouldn’t she have a little more anxiety over the act, or strange memories of the wallpaper again? How can she forget this trauma yet retain less meaningful bits of information in her future lives. Her second, “first time”, is glossed over and Ursula has a remarkable sexual sophistication going forward in the book. I thought that was odd considering the trouble she went through after her first time, getting a book from the neighbors in order to learn about human conception. How did she become a savvy mistress to an Admiral her second time being deflowered, but towards the end of the book she did not understand Sam Cole was having an orgasm?
3) I think Sylvie’s plot arch became totally lost on me. Either that, or it became so layered in symbolism and vagueness I just stopped caring enough to try and follow it. I did not like the author’s choice to showcase Sylvie as the only other person with the ability to change the events of her future lives. If Sylvie can change her life events then all of the characters should have been doing this, and there should have been a broader spectrum of events taking place each go around.
At the end of the book life seemed to be rendered inconsequential. Ursela is awakened to the fact that she will be back, to do it all over again, and she goes crazy. After this there is only one time where her life seems to take on purpose and meaning. She kills herself and has a plan for her next life. However she dies and once again she is back in the snow, running through her life hurdles trying to stay alive again. So aside from this single plan, Ursula is a woman things happen to, and she goes through her life only correcting events enough to stay alive. Stay alive for what? Fox Corner? This home she dreams of with fields, flowers, and fresh cut grass. Is that really all she (or we the reader) is living for? I would have liked the protagonist more if she corrected her life events not only to stay alive but to find the right man, challenge herself to try something new, or explore the depth of her connections to her family.