Welcome to the third edition of the BBRBF book club! This month, Sara, Noelle, and I are reviewing Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I struggled a bit with this book. But before I get into that, as always, here’s the synopsis via Goodreads:
“On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual.
For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history has plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.”
Much as the synopsis suggests, Life After Life begins with the death and birth of Ursula Todd. On the same night she dies, and she is born. Throughout Ursula’s many different lives, she makes minute choices that affect the fate of her existence. She is married, abused, raped, becomes a mother, lives as a spinster, works in the war effort, lives in Germany, and many, many other intricately crafted lives that all differ because of a few little decisions made early in life.
In the beginning of the book, Ursula dies so much that it is a guessing game to figure out what will be her next demise. I struggled a lot with the first third (or perhaps even the first half) of the story. It was slow and sometimes dragged on and on as Ursula was born — her birth told through the eyes of her mother, her father, the midwife, the doctor, the kitchen maid, the cook, and so on — and died (falling to her death, influenza, stillbirth, infection from a forced abortion, etc), and it felt like there would never be a plot. As Ursula slowly gets older, she becomes aware of the fact that her sense of things having already happened is not just an illusion. While she never firmly grasps the realization that she has lived life hundreds of times over until the end of the book, she begins to act upon “the imminence” of feeling as though she needs to do something differently when hazard presents itself.
Every time she acts, she is reborn to live a slightly different life and I, as the reader, am left to wonder what will bring her to an end again.
In all honesty, after struggling through the first part of the book, I left it to rest unread in my pile of to-read books until Monday, when I realized that I had to finish the book for this review. If it were on my list of books to read only for myself, I most likely never would have finished, and never would have mentioned it here. But since we’re all reviewing it for the BBRBF Book Club, I had to! And, I am so glad that I did. It’s a shame that the beginning of the book was (to me) so slow and sluggish, because the second half of the book picks up and I was riveted nearly to the end.
Ursula, now a woman, finds herself injured on the pavement and assisted to her feet (with a broken nose) by a gentleman who she later marries. But through the months his facade of niceties fades away, and it is revealed that he is truly a villain. Out of all of the characters in the book, I hated Ursula’s first husband the most. He was truly vile, constantly wearing Ursula down, beating her, taking advantage of her in the night, and in the end — inevitably — killing her. But of course, she lives again, and small acts of defiance she implements on her sixteenth birthday change the course of this life, and that marriage never comes into play again.
I found it quite fascinating how Atkinson continually kept Ursula’s general character the same while making changes to her life and her actions that molded and shaped who she became. Through the book, she changes from a meek and abused girl wondering if there’s something about her that attracts the wrong men to a confident and defiant woman who sets boundaries as to how she should be treated. Minute differences in her childhood and teenage years mean that her fortune changes from that of a rape victim to the unwilling wife of an abuser to the happily unmarried working woman to a brave soul actively working in the war effort. Her fortune in each life marginally improves as her gut tells her that doom is about to happen, and not only do her actions affect her own life, but also the lives (and deaths) of those around her.
Yet, through all of the different changes in her life and personality, Ursula’s core character stays the same, and that is a feat! As the book goes on, the plot very slowly becomes clear. There will be spoilers ahead as to what I think becomes Ursula’s purpose, so if you don’t want it spoiled… stop reading here.
For those of you who don’t care about spoilers, or who have already read the book, though, here are my thoughts on the plot development and Ursula’s eventual useage of her seemingly unending lives. Ursula has four siblings — Maurice, Pamela, Teddy, and (late in the book) Jimmy. Of the four, Teddy is her favorite and in the most intense bout of deaths in her childhood — and the most endless, it seemed — she and Teddy die again and again from influenza. Were it only herself, Ursula seemingly would have been fine with dying of influenza. But Teddy being her favorite, she attempts many different times to bring him away from the death and finally succeeds after about 10 deaths. (And so on, as the author says at the end of one death)
As well, in their childhood, Teddy has a sweet heart for a local girl, Nancy, who is killed a few times (and whose death is prevented a few times) by a tramp.
For a while, her love for Teddy doesn’t really come into play. She keeps tabs on him, but he lives through most of the book so she is preoccupied with keeping herself alive. Towards the last third of the book, however, he dies in the war. After a few different scenarios in which she dies, Maurice (her least favorite brother) tells her the unfortunate news, and I think this is when she begins to realize with more confidence that she can change things (whereas before, it’s just been a gut feeling and a sense of deja vu).
So, in the very last few scenarios, she saves both Nancy in her childhood and Teddy in his adulthood, and the book comes to an (almost) end with Nancy and Teddy both alive after the war, reunited and seeming to imply that this is Ursula’s chosen purpose in life. To keep the pure, sweet love between her brother and his childhood sweetheart alive, and to keep them from dying in her various lives. This plot wasn’t really apparent through most of the book until the end when Teddy comes home from war, Nancy runs to meet him in a euphoria, and Ursula stands still, hoping beyond hope that this isn’t one of her “hallucinations” of seeing another one of her lives.
I was not 100% happy with the ending or the overall plot; it would have been nice to have something a bit more solid about Ursula knowing she had lived several lives, instead of her only realizing at the very last her purpose in life, and I would have liked for her to have a purpose for her own life instead of her purpose being to keep her brother alive. However, overall it was a fascinating book and I really enjoyed seeing all of the differences that Ursula made in order to further her life and keep everyone around her alive.
I will say, my favorite character was Ursula’s father, Hugh. There was something romantic and solid and lovable about him. Ursula was his favorite child, and that endeared him as a character; he was a man who was loyal to his family, who loved babies, who took people under his wing and who loved his wife even though she may not have loved him back. Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, was deeply flawed and as the book went on she devolved in a way from a sweet country housewife to a woman worn down by the cares of her life. I liked that about the book, that each character gained or lost something in some way every time Ursula lived again.
And stealing from a conversation I’m having with Noelle at this moment, there are hints that perhaps other characters — Sylvie included — have also lived and died before and are aware of this. Which, perhaps, is why Sylvie’s character so subtly changes from a woman in love with her life to a woman worn down and ready for things to settle. However, somewhere in the middle of the book it is revealed that Sylvie takes Ursula to a psychiatrist for her “hallucinations, dreams, and fancies” which makes me think that Sylvie doesn’t really know she’s living multiple lives, and perhaps her readiness in the very end is just another change of Ursula’s constant rebirth. Sylvie has, after all, already had two children.
Overall, I give the book a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars. It was a really interesting concept, and everything was very well written down to the smallest details… but it dragged on so long, and so many parts were too easy to skip over as you knew that Ursula would probably just die again at the end of it all. As well, the implication that Ursula could change the fate of civilization in the summary? Only ever touched on at one point, when she decides she’s going to try to kill Hitler. After that, so far as I can tell, nothing she does in her lives actually changes the fate of the war.
For the outfit, it’s obvious that I had to wear my rose skirt, even though I have worn it for another review. There was simply nothing else in my closet that could compliment this book cover so much as this skirt! With this off-the-shoulder top, the beehive, and the headscarf, I feel a bit like Sophia Lauren, and very much fit in the later eras of Ursula’s life.
If you want to join us next month, we will be reading What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty and sharing our reviews on either the third or fourth Thursday of the month (given we can all obtain and read it in that time!). And if you read Life After Life, what did you think?