The basics: Life After Life is the story of a young British woman born in 1910. Throughout the novel she dies many times, and each possible life serves as an exploration of how small moments have enormous impact on our lives and deaths.
My thoughts: The opening scene of this novel is incredible: twenty-year-old Ursula kills Hitler in 1930 in a German cafe. She is promptly killed. Then the action goes back to Ursula's birth. In the next few scenes, various iterations of the doctor getting stuck in a snowstorm and making it to her birth or not play out, as do various causes of her death. Atkinson plays with life and death somewhat whimsically here, which I appreciated: "I hear the baby nearly died,” Mrs. Glover said. “Well…” Sylvie said. Such a fine line between living and dying."
The early part of this novel features many short scenes, which certainly introduce the concept of the novel, but I didn't find myself invested in Ursula as a person, even with her assassination of Hitler, until her teen years. I found the childhood years lacked momentum, but Atkinson's writing was strong, and I was enjoying the premise of the novel so immensely.
By the half-way point, I contemplated abandoning this novel. Despite its strong moments, I too often was bored. And this novel is loooong. I persevered, but the reading experience was somewhat maddening. At several points, I found find myself engrossed in the narrative only to have it switch paths. While I love the idea of this novel, I don't find it particularly new. Many novels tackle the idea, albeit without looking at actual different lives. The importance of little moments is a fascination of mine, and I often contemplate the different possible paths my life could have taken and still could take (admittedly, most of these do not involve my own death but rather the impact of the death of others, moves, and other life changes, small or large.)
Favorite passages: "What a world of difference there was between dying and nearly dying. One’s whole life, in fact. Ursula felt she had no use for the life she had been saved for."
"Ursula’s own chance at ordinariness seemed lost forever."
The verdict: I loved the idea of this book so much more than its execution. Undeniably, there are moments of brilliance, but they make the other moments that much more frustrating. While perhaps intentionally so, some of Ursula's lives are unbelievably boring. Despite the writing and premise, I found this novel overly long and not nearly as good as a whole as some of its parts are.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 512 pages
Publication date: April 2, 2013
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