Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson

I suppose this review is really a review of two books with somewhat similar premises but which are significantly different in the success of their execution.

The first review--the unofficial review--is of Jo Walton's My Real Children. The novel is the story of Patricia Cowen who, in old age, can recall two different lives: one with an abusive husband and another with a wonderful lesbian partner. The novel alternatively tells each version of Patricia's life. The stories don't overlap or relate to each other, and other than some subtle alternative history (e.g. in one version JFK is killed by a bomb), the novel is really just two different possible versions of one woman's life. The stories were so dull, lifeless, and unbelievable (and unbelievable in the most mundane way--like that fact that Patricia and Bee's relationship is honey perfect) that I only read a little more than half.

So, coincidentally, the next book I pick up is Atkinson's Life After Life. Her novel is also the story of one woman with multiple lives and occupies a similar period (overlapping especially in World War II) in history. But whereas Walton's book falls flat because the premise offers nothing especially new, Atkinson uses the multiple life premise to add interest and characterization. In Life After Life, Ursula is born and dies many times. But each time she returns--born into the exact same life--small things change. Sometimes the change is caused by Ursula herself, who retains a vague sense of dread/deja vu about her previous lives. Sometimes other external differences alter Ursula's course instead. In this way, Ursula's characterization is developed over the course of many lives, and it's interesting to see what she "learns" through each incarnation. 

Atkinson also uses the backdrop of World War I and II much more effectively than Walton. Though Ursula is an ordinary woman, she is intimately affected by both wars, from carrying out rescues during the bombing of London through interacting with Hitler himself.

Unlike Walton, who tries to cover the entire breadth of Patricia's life (resulting in a story that feels more like a Cliffs Notes summary), Atkinson easily skips large portions of Ursula's life, focusing on a few key areas and relationships in depth.

Both stories have some missteps. Each contains a story with an incredibly abusive husband that felt tired and excessively dramatic. Both continue the pregnant-on-the-first-go trope, which I hate, though My Real Children takes it a step farther by having Patricia get pregnant virtually every single time she has sex. We really can write better than this.

Nonetheless, Life After Life was engaging and worth a read while I'd avoid My Real Children (do try Walton's Among Others, though, which was much better).

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