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What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. 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 a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.
Does Ursula's apparently infinite number of lives give her the power to save the world from its inevitable destiny? And if she can -- will she?
Darkly comic, startlingly poignant, and utterly original -- this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Life After Life
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Kate Atkinson
All rights reserved.
Be Ye Men of Valor
A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café. She had come in from the rain and drops of water still trembled like delicate dew on the fur coats of some of the women inside. A regiment of white-aproned waiters rushed around at tempo, serving the needs of the Münchner at leisure—coffee, cake and gossip.
He was at a table at the far end of the room, surrounded by the usual cohorts and toadies. There was a woman she had never seen before—a permed, platinum blonde with heavy makeup—an actress by the look of her. The blond lit a cigarette, making a phallic performance out of it. Everyone knew that he preferred his women demure and whole-some, Bavarian preferably. All those dirndls and knee-socks, God help us.
The table was laden. Bienenstich, Gugelhupf, Käsekuchen. He was eating a slice of Kirschtorte. He loved his cakes. No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn't diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed for public view. Not a manly man. He smiled when he caught sight of her and half rose, saying, "Guten Tag, gnädiges Fräulein," indicating the chair next to him. The bootlicker who was currently occupying it jumped up and moved away.
"Unsere Englische Freundin," he said to the blonde, who blew cigarette smoke out slowly and examined her without any interest before eventually saying, "Guten Tag." A Berliner.
She placed her handbag, heavy with its cargo, on the floor next to her chair and ordered Schokolade. He insisted that she try the Pflaumen Streusel.
"Es regnet," she said by way of conversation. "It's raining."
"Yes, it's raining," he said with a heavy accent. He laughed, pleased at his attempt. Everyone else at the table laughed as well. "Bravo," someone said. "Sehr gutes Englisch." He was in a good mood, tapping the back of his index finger against his lips with an amused smile as if he was listening to a tune in his head.
The Streusel was delicious.
"Entschuldigung," she murmured, reaching down into her bag and delving for a handkerchief. Lace corners, monogrammed with her initials, "UBT"—a birthday present from Pammy. She dabbed politely at the Streusel flakes on her lips and then bent down again to put the handkerchief back in her bag and retrieve the weighty object nesting there. Her father's old service revolver from the Great War, a Webley Mark V.
A move rehearsed a hundred times. One shot. Swiftness was all, yet there was a moment, a bubble suspended in time after she had drawn the gun and levelled it at his heart when everything seemed to stop.
"Führer," she said, breaking the spell. "Für Sie."
Around the table guns were jerked from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.
Ursula pulled the trigger.
11 February 1910
An icy rush of air, a freezing slipstream on the newly exposed skin. She is, with no warning, outside the inside and the familiar wet, tropical world has suddenly evaporated. Exposed to the elements. A prawn peeled, a nut shelled.
No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.
Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.
Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.
"Dr. Fellowes should have been here," Sylvie moaned. "Why isn't he here yet? Where is he?" Big dewdrop pearls of sweat on her skin, a horse nearing the end of a hard race. The bedroom fire stoked like a ship's furnace. The thick brocade curtains drawn tightly against the enemy, the night. The black bat.
"Yer man'll be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma'am. It's sure dreadful wild out there. The road will be closed."
Sylvie and Bridget were alone in their ordeal. Alice, the parlor maid, was visiting her sick mother. And Hugh, of course, was chasing down Isobel, his wild goose of a sister, à Paris. Sylvie had no wish to involve Mrs. Glover, snoring in her attic room like a truffling hog. Sylvie imagined she would conduct proceedings like a parade-ground sergeant-major. The baby was early. Sylvie was expecting it to be late like the others. The best-laid plans, and so on.
"Oh, ma'am," Bridget cried suddenly, "she's all blue, so she is."
"The cord's wrapped around her neck. Oh, Mary, Mother of God. She's been strangled, the poor wee thing."
"Not breathing? Let me see her. We must do something. What can we do?"
"Oh, Mrs. Todd, ma'am, she's gone. Dead before she had a chance to live. I'm awful, awful sorry. She'll be a little cherub in heaven now, for sure. Oh, I wish Mr. Todd was here. I'm awful sorry. Shall I wake Mrs. Glover?"
The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
11 February 1910
"For God's sake, girl, stop running around like a headless chicken and fetch some hot water and towels. Do you know nothing? Were you raised in a field?"
"Sorry, sir." Bridget dipped an apologetic curtsy as if Dr. Fellowes were minor royalty.
"A girl, Dr. Fellowes? May I see her?"
"Yes, Mrs. Todd, a bonny, bouncing baby girl." Sylvie thought Dr. Fellowes might be over-egging the pudding with his alliteration. He was not one for bonhomie at the best of times. The health of his patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him.
"She would have died from the cord around her neck. I arrived at Fox Corner in the nick of time. Literally." Dr. Fellowes held up his surgical scissors for Sylvie's admiration. They were small and neat and their sharp points curved upwards at the end. "Snip, snip," he said. Sylvie made a mental note, a small, vague one, given her exhaustion and the circumstances of it, to buy just such a pair of scissors, in case of similar emergency. (Unlikely, it was true.) Or a knife, a good sharp knife to be carried on one's person at all times, like the robber-girl in The Snow Queen.
"You were lucky I got here in time," Dr. Fellowes said. "Before the snow closed the roads. I called for Mrs. Haddock, the midwife, but I believe she is stuck somewhere outside Chalfont St. Peter."
"Mrs. Haddock?" Sylvie said and frowned. Bridget laughed out loud and then quickly mumbled, "Sorry, sorry, sir." Sylvie supposed that she and Bridget were both on the edge of hysteria. Hardly surprising.
"Bog Irish," Dr. Fellowes muttered.
"Bridget's only a scullery maid, a child herself. I am very grateful to her. It all happened so quickly." Sylvie thought how much she wanted to be alone, how she was never alone. "You must stay until morning, I suppose, doctor," she said reluctantly.
"Well, yes, I suppose I must," Dr. Fellowes said, equally reluctantly.
Sylvie sighed and suggested that he help himself to a glass of brandy in the kitchen. And perhaps some ham and pickles. "Bridget will see to you." She wanted rid of him. He had delivered all three (three!) of her children and she did not like him one bit. Only a husband should see what he saw. Pawing and poking with his instruments in her most delicate and secretive places. (But would she rather have a midwife called Mrs. Haddock deliver her child?) Doctors for women should all be women themselves. Little chance of that.
Dr. Fellowes lingered, humming and hawing, overseeing the washing and wrapping of the new arrival by a hot-faced Bridget. Bridget was the eldest of seven so she knew how to swaddle an infant. She was fourteen years old, ten years younger than Sylvie. When Sylvie was fourteen she was still in short skirts, in love with her pony, Tiffin. Had no idea where babies came from, even on her wedding night she remained baffled. Her mother, Lottie, had hinted but had fallen shy of anatomical exactitude. Conjugal relations between man and wife seemed, mysteriously, to involve larks soaring at daybreak. Lottie was a reserved woman. Some might have said narcoleptic. Her husband, Sylvie's father, Llewellyn Beresford, was a famous society artist but not at all Bohemian. No nudity or louche behavior in his household. He had painted Queen Alexandra, when she was still a princess. Said she was very pleasant.
They lived in a good house in Mayfair, while Tiffin was stabled in a mews near Hyde Park. In darker moments, Sylvie was wont to cheer herself up by imagining that she was back there in the sunny past, sitting neatly in her side-saddle on Tiffin's broad little back, trotting along Rotten Row on a clean spring morning, the blossom bright on the trees.
"How about some hot tea and a nice bit of buttered toast, Mrs. Todd?" Bridget said.
"That would be lovely, Bridget."
The baby, bandaged like a Pharaonic mummy, was finally passed to Sylvie. Softly, she stroked the peachy cheek and said, "Hello, little one," and Dr. Fellowes turned away so as not to be a witness to such syrupy demonstrations of affection. He would have all children brought up in a new Sparta if it were up to him.
"Well perhaps a little cold collation wouldn't go amiss," he said. "Is there, by chance, any of Mrs. Glover's excellent piccalilli?"
Four Seasons Fill the Measure of the Year
11 February 1910
Sylvie was woken by a dazzling sliver of sunlight piercing the curtains like a shining silver sword. She lay languidly in lace and cashmere as Mrs. Glover came into the room, proudly bearing a huge breakfast tray. Only an occasion of some importance seemed capable of drawing Mrs. Glover this far out of her lair. A single, half-frozen snowdrop drooped in the bud vase on the tray. "Oh, a snowdrop!" Sylvie said. "The first flower to raise its poor head above the ground. How brave it is!"
Mrs. Glover, who did not believe that flowers were capable of courage, or indeed any other character trait, laudable or otherwise, was a widow who had only been with them at Fox Corner a few weeks. Before her advent there had been a woman called Mary who slouched a great deal and burned the roasts. Mrs. Glover tended, if anything, to undercook food. In the prosperous household of Sylvie's childhood, Cook was called "Cook" but Mrs. Glover preferred "Mrs. Glover." It made her irreplaceable. Sylvie still stubbornly thought of her as Cook.
"Thank you, Cook." Mrs. Glover blinked slowly like a lizard. "Mrs. Glover," Sylvie corrected herself.
Mrs. Glover set the tray down on the bed and opened the curtains. The light was extraordinary, the black bat vanquished.
"So bright," Sylvie said, shielding her eyes.
"So much snow," Mrs. Glover said, shaking her head in what could have been wonder or aversion. It was not always easy to tell with Mrs. Glover.
"Where is Dr. Fellowes?" Sylvie asked.
"There was an emergency. A farmer trampled by a bull."
"Some men came from the village and tried to dig his automobile out but in the end my George came and gave him a ride."
"Ah," Sylvie said, as if suddenly understanding something that had puzzled her.
"And they call it horsepower," Mrs. Glover snorted, bull-like herself. "That's what comes of relying on new-fangled machines."
"Mm," Sylvie said, reluctant to argue with such strongly held views. She was surprised that Dr. Fellowes had left without examining either herself or the baby.
"He looked in on you. You were asleep," Mrs. Glover said. Sylvie sometimes wondered if Mrs. Glover was a mind-reader. A perfectly horrible thought.
"He ate his breakfast first," Mrs. Glover said, displaying both approval and disapproval in the same breath. "The man has an appetite, that's for sure."
"I could eat a horse," Sylvie laughed. She couldn't, of course. Tiffin popped briefly into her mind. She picked up the silver cutlery, heavy like weapons, ready to tackle Mrs. Glover's devilled kidneys. "Lovely," she said (were they?) but Mrs. Glover was already busy inspecting the baby in the cradle. ("Plump as a suckling pig.") Sylvie idly wondered if Mrs. Haddock was still stuck somewhere outside Chalfont St. Peter.
"I hear the baby nearly died," Mrs. Glover said.
"Well ..." Sylvie said. Such a fine line between living and dying. Her own father, the society portraitist, slipped on an Isfahan rug on a first-floor landing after some fine cognac one evening. The next morning he was discovered dead at the foot of the stairs. No one had heard him fall or cry out. He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously.
Afterward it turned out that he had been more profligate with his money than mother and daughter realized. A secret gambler, markers all over town. He had made no provision at all for unexpected death and soon there were creditors crawling over the nice house in Mayfair. A house of cards as it turned out. Tiffin had to go. Broke Sylvie's heart, the grief greater than any she felt for her father.
"I thought his only vice was women," her mother said, roosting temporarily on a packing case as if modeling for a pietà.
They sank into genteel and well-mannered poverty. Sylvie's mother grew pale and uninteresting, larks soared no more for her as she faded, consumed by consumption. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie was rescued from becoming an artist's model by a man she met at the post-office counter. Hugh. A rising star in the prosperous world of banking. The epitome of bourgeois respectability. What more could a beautiful but penniless girl hope for?
Lottie died with less fuss than was expected and Hugh and Sylvie married quietly on Sylvie's eighteenth birthday. ("There," Hugh said, "now you will never forget the anniversary of our marriage.") They spent their honeymoon in France, a delightful quinzaine in Deauville before settling in semi-rural bliss near Beaconsfield in a house that was vaguely Lutyens in style. It had everything one could ask for—a large kitchen, a drawing room with French windows on to the lawn, a pretty morning room and several bedrooms waiting to be filled with children. There was even a little room at the back of the house for Hugh to use as a study. "Ah, my growlery," he laughed.
It was surrounded at a discreet distance by similar houses. There was a meadow and a copse and a bluebell wood beyond with a stream running through it. The train station, no more than a halt, would allow Hugh to be at his banker's desk in less than an hour.
"Sleepy hollow," Hugh laughed as he gallantly carried Sylvie across the threshold. It was a relatively modest dwelling (nothing like Mayfair) but nonetheless a little beyond their means, a fiscal recklessness that surprised them both.
"We should give the house a name," Hugh said. "The Laurels, the Pines, the Elms."
"But we have none of those in the garden," Sylvie pointed out. They were standing at the French windows of the newly purchased house, looking at a swathe of overgrown lawn. "We must get a gardener," Hugh said. The house itself was echoingly empty. They had not yet begun to fill it with the Voysey rugs and Morris fabrics and all the other aesthetic comforts of a twentieth-century house. Sylvie would have quite happily lived in Liberty's rather than the as- yet-to-be-named marital home.
"Greenacres, Fairview, Sunnymead?" Hugh offered, putting his arm around his bride.
The previous owner of their unnamed house had sold up and gone to live in Italy. "Imagine," Sylvie said dreamily. She had been to Italy when she was younger, a grand tour with her father while her mother went to Eastbourne for her lungs.
"Full of Italians," Hugh said dismissively.
"Quite. That's rather the attraction," Sylvie said, unwinding herself from his arm.
"The Gables, the Homestead?"
"Do stop," Sylvie said.
A fox appeared out of the shrubbery and crossed the lawn. "Oh, look," Sylvie said. "How tame it seems, it must have grown used to the house being unoccupied."
"Let's hope the local hunt isn't following on its heels," Hugh said. "It's a scrawny beast."
"It's a vixen. She's a nursing mother, you can see her teats."
Hugh blinked at such blunt terminology falling from the lips of his recently virginal bride. (One presumed. One hoped.)
"Look," Sylvie whispered. Two small cubs sprang out onto the grass and tumbled over each other in play. "Oh, they're such handsome little creatures!"
"Some might say vermin."
"Perhaps they see us as verminous," Sylvie said. "Fox Corner—that's what we should call the house. No one else has a house with that name and shouldn't that be the point?"
Excerpted from Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Copyright © 2014 Kate Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. Ursula Todd gets to live out many different realities, something that's impossible in real life. Though there is an array of possibilities that form Ursula's alternate histories, do you think any and all futures are possible in Ursula's world, or are there certain parameters within which each life is lived?
2. As time goes on, Ursula learns more about her ability to restart her lifeand she often changes course accordingly, but she doesn't always correct things. Why not? Do you think Ursula ever becomes completely conscious of her ability to relive and redo her lives? If so, at what point in the story do you think that happens? And what purpose do you think she sets for herself once she figures it out?
3. Do people's choices have the power to change destiny? How do you think Ursula's choices are either at odds with or in line with the ideas of fate and destiny throughout the story?
4. Do you think Ursula's ability to relive her life over and over is a gift or a curse? How do you think Ursula looks at it? Do you think she is able to embrace the philosophy amor fati ("love of fate," "acceptance") in the end?
5. Small moments often have huge ramifications in Ursula's life. Do you think certain moments are more crucial than others in the way Ursula's life develops? Why, and which moments?
6. LIFE AFTER LIFE encapsulates both the big picture (the sweep of major global historical events) and the small picture (the dynamics of Ursula's loving, quirky family). How are these pictures tied together? When do Ursula's decisions affect the big picture more, or the small picture more? When do they affect both?
7. How does Atkinson portray gender throughout the story? How does she comment on the gender roles of this time period, and which characters challenge those rolesand how?
8. How does Atkinson's humor pepper the story? In what ways is she able to bring a bit of comedy to her characters and their stories as relief from the serious and dark subject matter?
9. How do the various relationships within the Todd family shape the story? What is the significance of maternal bonds and sibling bonds in the story?
10. How does Atkinson capture the terror and tragedy of the Blitz? How does war become its own character in the book? What type of commentary does Atkinson make on the English approach to war? Why do you think Atkinson portrayed one of Ursula's lives in Germany, experiencing war and the bombing from the opposing side?
11. On page 379, Ursula faces a bleak end in Germany with her daughter, Frieda. She chooses death over life for the first time, saying, "Something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed." What do you think she means by that? Is this a significant turning point to Ursula's story? Do you think the end of this life affects her decisions in other lives that follow?
12. On page 354, Klara says, "Hindsight's a wonderful thing. If we all had it there would be no history to write about." Do you think this is true? In what ways does the use of hindsight come to pass in the book?
13. "'Well, we all get on,' Sylvie said, 'one way or another. And in the end we all arrive at the same place. I hardly see that it matters how we get there.' It seemed to Ursula that how you got there was the whole point..." (page 252). Do you agree with Sylvie or with Ursula? How does this relate to a philosophy raised by Dr. Kelletthat "sometimes a bad thing happens to prevent a worse thing happening" (page 160)?
14. Along similar lines, Ursula says to Teddy on page 446, "You just have to get on with life....We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try." And Teddy responds, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again until we finally did get it right?" What do you think it means to get things right? Is Ursula attempting to make things "right" in life each time she's reborn? If so, which things in particularand how?
15. On page 277, Ralph asks Ursula if she could have killed Hitler as a baby, and Ursula thinks, "If I thought it would save Teddy.... Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too." Do you think Ursula ultimately had to choose between saving Teddy and saving "the rest of the world"? If so, why did she choose as she did? And was she able to save either?
16. Life continues to restart over and over for Ursula and the Todd family, and outcomes vary greatly each time. What happens to the characters changes drastically in many of the versions. Do you feel the characters change just as drastically, in terms of who they are and what they are like? Or do you think they fundamentally stay the same? Ursula learns many things about life and its progression, but does she herself change over the course of the book?
17. What are the biggest questions this book raised for you? How did it change the way you think about the course of your own life?
A Conversation with Kate Atkinson, Author of Life After Life
Interview by Tess Taylor
This book traces the life of Ursula Todd, a woman who lives many times. But each time she lives, her life begins in 1910. What drew you to this time period? What about this particular generation seemed remarkable to you?
I don't think I started by thinking in terms of this generation being remarkable particularly, although I thought that more as I went on and read more about the war. I think they were very stoical in a way that perhaps we are not, they just got on with things, which was a pretty handy trait to have to get you through a war. I had never intended to write so much about the period before the war but then I got caught up in the atmosphere and the language and exploring how Ursula - and the rest of the Todds - came to be how they were. They might have flourished during the WWII but they were forged in the crucible of the 'Great War' and the years after.
As I just mentioned, Ursula lives many times. But unlike the way most people often think of reincarnation, Ursula lives her life as Ursula over and over, with the same family in the same house. What drew you to this version of living again?
I was trying to avoid 'reincarnation' it didn't feel right and I've always been attracted by the 'Groundhog Day' structure (for want of a better reference - but it's a good reference) and I used it to an extent in Human Croquet but always wanted to explore it more. I had thought to write a novel called 'Parallel Lives' (I still might) but I was surprised when I suddenly realised as I began to write that this was the right structure for this book.
As you decided the points in Ursula's life when the narrative would fork, did you have rules for yourself around what could or could not happen? How did you decide which events would be most significant?
No, I didn't have rules, only that she would improve in her understanding and knowledge and 'come into' her heroism. I always knew the book was working towards the Blitz as the fulcrum and Teddy's death would be the thing that changes everything for her.
Without giving the plot away too much, it's worth noting that in some ways Ursula lives radically divergent lives, but in other ways many characters and even events stay the same. How did you imagine narrative coherence across lifetimes?
I'm not sure what you mean by 'imagine' narrative coherence, it's more a case of wrestling with structure. I can hold a book very clearly in my mind, where everyone is, what's happening, so it's just a case of moving forward with it and instinctively adding those threads and echoes and whispers that tie everything together.
I couldn't help but notice that there were animal figurations that wove through the story: Ursula means bear, and there are also many rabbits, foxes and even wolves that show up at key points in her many lives. What drew you to these figures? What did you most hope to explore with them?
I don't think I was hoping or exploring anything with them. The fox is obviously important, Tod or Todd is an old English name for fox and Fuchs, Ursula's married name in German means fox. The fox is rather like a spirit animal for Ursula and Sylvie, Teddy to some extent. I always have a lot of animals and birds in my books, millions of dogs, I think they're as important as people in some ways.
At Barnes & Noble, we like to ask writers to give us some recommendations. What new authors have you discovered lately? Which books are moving you?
I've enjoyed The Fields and The Silent Wife but it takes a lot to move me. And let's add Telegraph Avenue and Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk to the list of recent recommendations.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When I first read the synopsis of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, I immediately wondered how Ursula Todd would come back to life. Would it be like Captain Jack Harkness in the television series Torchwood, where moments after death she'd revive with a huge gasp for air? Would it be more like the movie Groundhog Day, with all the frustration that came with not being able to escape the loop? Would she be aware of what was happening? Would other people be aware of it happening to her? No matter how many possibilities I envisioned, I was still surprised by the way Kate Atkinson crafted this plot point. It is handled with ingenuity and originality; never cheesy, never trite. I'm purposely being vague here, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone. But I think every time I feel déjà vu in the future, I'll be reminded of this novel... Much of the story took place in London during the bombings (the "Blitz") of WWII. These pages were terrifying and heart-wrenching. I would start to feel overwhelmed and think, "Is this ever going to stop?" I'd want to put the book down for a while, and then feel guilty. I'd been reading over the course of only two days, and could take a break whenever I wanted. London had 57 nights in a row of bombings. Atkinson gives readers an incredibly vivid portrayal of war, a poignant and multifaceted look at its enormity and how distressing - and wearying - it is for all involved. Life After Life is beautifully written and reads like a classic. Wonderfully complex, it's a story you could read over and over and always make new connections. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.
I received an ARC of Kate Atkinson's latest book and was not disappointed! Kate wields Ursula's life and her various possibilities like a kaleidoscope; with one simple twist the results are so beautifully different and complex. From the publisher, "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 (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization." Facing the unknown, reincarnation and ownership for our actions or passivity is a fascinating backdrop to this wildly powerful tale that courses through different time periods in England and Europe's 20th century. It was so easy to be caught up in Ursula's many lives; I got the same rush of excitement and anticipation as I did when reading the "Choose Your Own Adventure” book series in the 80’s as a young girl! I highly recommend “Life After Life”, as it was thoroughly engaging and engrossing – which is the marking of a phenomenal book!
This was a selection for our book club, and I have to say it isn't one I would have picked myself, nor would I read it again. The premise is very intriguing and the history and writing are well done. The explanation of the "deja vu" and how Ursula moves past a previous obstacle each time she starts over were very well done. However, about halfway through, the story just became mundane, and while a lot of it lended to the history of the time period Ursula lived in, I felt that the more important parts of the plot were lost in boring daily detail. It also became a little jumbled at the end, and i'm not quite sure i really understand what happened or why it happened in the end after all. If you just want ot give something different a try, a chance to read outside the box, give it a shot. But dont expect a riveting story.
“There is a fine line between living and dying,” a character observes in Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And it does certainly seem to be the case here, in the midst of two world wars, during the Great Influenza, at the beginning of the twentieth century in Britain. Characters come close to death, and some do not escape it: alternate histories are woven together until we are not really sure what is true. And this is the message. “History is all about ‘what ifs’” a character says late in the novel. More to the point here, perhaps, is that fiction, and this fiction in particular, is all about ‘what ifs’. This is my first experience with what I would call a literary mash-up. Mash-up is a relatively new concept in literature that was borrowed from music where two or more songs are combined, usually by laying the vocal track of one song over the instrumental track of another. Wikipedia defines a literary mash up as taking a pre-existing work of fiction, often a classic, and combining perhaps thirty or forty percent of it with a vampire, werewolf, or horror genre. Atkinson has taken “classic history,” which is the Führer’s horror story, and overlaid many possible stories (love stories, family histories, employment possibilities) so that outcomes in some cases are different for individuals, but not, that we can see, in the larger history. Stories cascade upon one another, all centered around a single family, indeed, a single person, Ursula, who we meet in the first chapter and who succeeds, we think at first, in killing the Führer. “Don’t you wonder sometimes, “ Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say a Quaker household—surely things would be different.” The juxtaposition of the chapters makes one remember those times when we stare into the unknowingness of the future and wonder what it will hold for us…and once there, looking back at the innocence of the early years, when we proceeded with our lives as though we had any control at all. Which brings me to a larger observation in this novel and in Atkinson’s fiction in general: oftentimes Atkinson’s characters are not agents of change, but reagents, possibly causing a chain reaction when they are introduced, possibly having no discernible impact at all. “Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future.” Sometimes there are exceptional people, but even they cannot escape that possibility that “one thing” could change everything. Therein lie our power, and the power of the fiction writer. The title, Life After Life, points to those lives impacted by another’s life, or a close escape from death, or lives that continue after another has died, or simply the alternate histories we all might have if “one thing had been different.” When the book and the stories were drawing to a close, I admit I didn’t want to get to the end. I didn’t want another person to die unexpectedly. I didn’t want Ursula to grow older. I didn’t want to know which story was true. So, you see, I was caught, too.
I tend to be skeptical of books that have a big fuss made about them, finding them either too “artsy” or too “James Patterson-ish” -not literary at all. But Life After Life far exceeded my expectations. It was well-written with a great sense of atmosphere, a believable but likeable protagonist, and a great sense of time and place. The main character, Sophie, is born again and again throughout the novel on a chilly evening in February 1910. Each lifetime a circumstance changes sending Ursula and her family’s future on a different trajectory. What if we get to live again and again until we get our life right? Highly recommended for fans of historical and literary fiction!
Read this novel, please! I promise you that once you begin reading this book you too will find it difficult to put it down. And once you read it through to the last pages, I'm sure you too will want to turn back to its first pages to rethink the whole novel through again. To be sure, this is a masterpiece which deserves to be read again and again. Ursula is truly a remarkable character of depth whom we take interest in for her own sake as an individual and not for anything she might symbolize as a literary heroine. We are able to connect with her viscerally (and we do many times over). The other primary characters who populate her story are no less remarkable than she. Her family, her friends, her lovers, and even her Zen master-like psychiatrist are all highly believable individuals with whom we can easily identify. The cover blurb provides a fair plot summary of the novel and I am sure other reviewers will rehash it over and over again as well, so I will spare you a plot summary here. Rather I want to remark on what makes this novel so brilliant for me - and it is not only the deep underlying philosophical and religious themes which will surely open wide this book to many interpretations - but its beautiful characters who break all stereotypes and its structure which is a masterpiece of narrative architecture.
Don't give up on this book. It is very confusing for at least the first third. But it is captivating and you just become fascinated by the lives in it. I'm still not sure what it's all about but may reread it again soon to take it all in again. I don't know how Kate Atkinson thought of an idea for this book.
This is by far one of the most entertaining and intriguing novels I have ever read. I will not try to describe it as it truly defies description. If I had to sum it up in a sentence I would say: A marvelous morality tale of what ifs and what could bes. Ursula, the main character, has a chronic case of deja vu. With it, she gets a do over when she needs it. This way, everyone gets a happy ending. A totally charming novel, I found it difficult to put down. …LEB…
I was very excited about the premise of this story. Unfotunately, it did not get fulfilled. I think the story was confusung at times and the end was very rushed. There was some bouts of brilliance but a lot of times the plots fell flat. Not sorry i bought it but I don't get what all the praise was about. Also there was a lot of German so some puns msy have been lost on me since I don't speak that language. Hope this helps your decision making!
I really enjoyed reading the book. I would say this book is for people who like something thought provoking. The writing is excellent and the concept is novel (at least to me). Much of the novel is on the melancholy side but there are many sections of inspiring triumph.
When I finished reading this book, I was sure I had missed some details, so I started over and read it again. The second reading clarified some things for me, but the ending left me more confused than I was the first time. However, I thought it was an excellent book and well worth my time. I'm sure I will spend a lot of time thinking about it, and I may even read it again in the future.
Phew! Was I glad that book finally ended. It is one of the most tedious books I've ever read. Utterly exhausting. Barely got through it. Wish I would have stopped several pages in like some of these other readers.
Interesting and well written. Quite a clever plot device is more than well supported by wonderful storytelling. Read it!
This has to be the most boring book I have ever read. It sounded sort of interesting when I bought it, having been persuaded by all the good reviews. It has no particular suspense involved except that after the first few chapters you start waiting for Ursala to die. At page 88 I quit reading because I just didn't care anymore whether she lived or died. The author gave me no reason to identify with her or to care about her. She (nor any of the other characters) were ever real people to me. I am very sorry I bought this book.
Loved it! A whole new take on Einstein's quantum universes.
Imagine plodding through a Christmas card from a distant relative or friend with a 2 page insert of all the mundane things that have been happening in the life of their family. Now imagine over 400 pages of this and the family is not even real – it’s fictional. That’s what this book reads like. The premise is great – the execution of it is another matter entirely. Each chapter is filled with mundane details of the routine activities of daily living of the protagonist and her family – kids playing in the yard, people eating, blah, blah, blah. You have to get to the last paragraph of each chapter before anything interesting happens, and that is the part where Ursula dies. It would have been nice if she could have spared us the agony and just stayed dead in the first paragraph of the book and end it there. As it is, you find yourself reading because of the interesting premise of the story, only to be continually frustrated as the Christmas card tabulation never seems to end. I have to confess, I value my time and was not going to get snookered into wasting anymore of it than I had to, so I gave up after 50 or so pages. But in my opinion, if the author can’t say something interesting by this point, then he has failed the reader, and with so many books to be read out there, the reader should move on to the next one. I could have saved some time and money by paying more attention to some of the negative reviews. They were spot on. Unless you’re a big fan of Christmas cards, save yourself the trouble and find another book. This one is a snoozer.
It was not at all what I expected, but thoroughly enjoyed it once I got into it. An interesting journey and very thought provoking.
Loved this book! It was so interesting to see the complex view of the London bombings through the eyes of the main character. Highly recommend!
Sometimes I thought I was reading the incorrect chapter. Interesting story but too contrived to enjoy the read.
Very long book mostly about the main character's family life and dealing with WWII. Will be a big disappointment if you expect a lot of the plot to be about Ursula's multiple lives.
I thought this book was absolutely fabulous. And now that it's been about a week since I've read it, I find myself walking around with the constant sense that the past is everpresent with me; it's not over, it's just behind the thinnest veil. The connection and roads not taken are still here, impinging on every minute, and everything in life seems very tentative and interconnected--a miraculous and changeable weave. Kate Atkinson is a master storyteller. When I read her it's like watching Picasso draw a single line that turns immediately into a living creation. We know Kate Atkinson's Ursula Todd is entirely fictional, but in her provisionality, she is somehow more than that, much more alive and active in all her variation than all other characters we've read. A truly stunning achievement.
I've always believed in reincarnation so this book looked exciting at first glance...I'm at page 163 and it's like a durge trying to get thru to something interesting. Maybe I'm missing something here...I don't find it complex, just simple and boring...author will probably throw in a rape pretty soon and maybe Ursula won't even know what happened...go figure!
Brilliant! Have you ever, even just once, wondered how your life and those around you would be different had you taken a different path at a decision point, even if it seemed mundane and irrelevant at the time? This book tells that story for one character (and the subsequent "touch points" to others in her life). The writing style is original and page-turning. I highly recommend this book.
I managed to get through the first 200 pages before I could no longer believe I was using my time well. The story is so wordy but goes nowhere. There are dialogue pieces in German, French, and Spanish, none of which are translated, which I found to be annoying.
I love to read but this was a hard read. I got confused thinking I'd missed pages and that wasnt the case. I'm not sure if I'm disappointed in the book or my reading skills, which by the way I have never had to question before. Ugh, I wish I liked it more.