Tag Archives: Reincarnation

Book Club Reflection: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

8 May

I know what you’re thinking; “Sam’s in too many book clubs!” But really, is there such thing? And to assuage you, I did not join another book club. Not really. A co-worker recommended that I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and said I could borrow it after another co-worker had finished it. We joking called it a little book club. Well, if we’re going to call it a book club, we better hold a meeting! And of course, we did. We even had it in a conference room. We used some discussion questions from Lit Lovers to guide our discussion. I’ll refer to them as B and V here for clarity.

We started off with some overall feelings about the book. B loved the language of the book, saying it was beautiful and I have to agree. I think Atkinson’s word choice really helped her paint a beautiful picture of an ugly part of world history. The Blitz was so sad. B warned me that she felt that part of the book dragged and I had to agree. There are so many ways a person can die in a bombing attack and I think Atkinson explored most of them. The prologue to the book was wonderful and kept us pulled in throughout the Blitz, waiting for the events in the prologue to take place. Without it, I think B and I would have given up!

It took us some time to understand what was happening to Ursula. When V picked up the book, she thought it was going to be reincarnation in a more traditional sense; where a single soul is reborn into multiple bodies as time progresses. B and I had similar expectations. It took a few lives for us to understand that Ursula was always going to be born on the same night to the same woman and be given the same name.  Once we understood, we really liked it. Some of her lives were such a drastic change that we were surprised. My favorites were moving to Germany the second time and when she dies a natural death.

One of our favorite things about the book was the characters that surrounded Ursula. So many of the men in Ursula’s life were terrible people, especially the men she was romantically involved with. We suspected that her relationship with them was influenced by her life where she was raped. Even in subsequent lives, she still had a memory of that time and it kept her from becoming close with men. Another theory was that her flippant attitude was influenced by her aunt, who had a similarly care-free attitude toward men. These gentlemen didn’t want an attachment, only a fleeting affair, and Ursula did, too. She saw life as more fleeting because she died so many times and seemed to be more okay with having fun than settling down. In this sense, she was a lot more like her aunt Izzy than her mom.

Pam was a favorite among the three of us. She was such a stable character who loved and supported Ursula in all of her lives. We liked that she had a stable relationship and could give Ursula advice about the terrible men she dated. Pam seemed to be Izzy’s foil, leading Ursula to a bath of matronly bliss instead of delightfully good times.

We talked about the Lit Lovers question, “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?” We decided there were definitely things she couldn’t change. World War I was the first example. But on a more broad level, she couldn’t change her family’s personalities. Maurice, Pam, Hugh, and the cook all had the same personalities throughout the book no matter the life. Ursula was only able to learn how to deal with these people. What seemed odd to me is that at the end of the book, Izzy’s child is not given away to a German couple and grows up with the girls instead. How could Ursula have changed that when she wasn’t even born? We wondered if all of the characters were re-living their lives over and over but only Ursula was aware of it. Sylvie talked a lot about repetition which made us wonder why.

I asked if anyone thought Izzy’s child reappeared in Ursula’s lives in Germany. Had she met him and never known it? Or was the idea of the character enough? For a second, I wondered if the man she’d married in Germany was her cousin. V and B didn’t think so, but it did make us wonder about parents who give their child up for adoption. That child will never know if they are one-day meeting relatives of theirs. That’s such a weird thing to think about.

We used the second Lit Lovers question, “As time goes on, Ursula learns more about her ability to restart her life—and 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?” We felt that she didn’t always change everything because she couldn’t. Like I said before, there were some things she couldn’t change. She couldn’t stop Pam from getting sick unless she stopped the maid from going to London. She couldn’t stop the maid from going to London, so she changed her reaction to the boyfriend she traveled with. We felt Ursula became fully aware of her ability the second time she went to Germany. She set her purpose to try to eliminate Hitler before Teddy would die. The first time she was in Germany, she didn’t have as many déjà vu triggers and couldn’t react to what was happening around her to stop the war. She was just afraid of it. The second time, she knew she could do something.

Moving on to question four from Lit Lovers, “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?” We felt it was a curse because of her inability to change so many of the parameters. It would feel torturous to know something bad was going to happen and be at a loss for how to change it. We don’t think Ursula knew how to look at it. It was a blessing because she could try to protect her family, but at the same time she knew all the serious things that were going to happen to her in the coming months.

Question eight is, “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?” B saw this in the turn of phrase and word choice that Atkinson used. She had a dry sense of humor that made the Blitz scenes a bit easier to read. Ursula had a resilient attitude toward death because she wasn’t afraid of it which allowed her to look at things more objectively and gave her a humorous quirk. Izzy was welcome comic relief through the book that helped brighten a dark tone. We felt that the book was much more lighthearted and funny until the rape scene. After that, things got a lot more serious.

The final question we talked about was number eleven, “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?” I loved this scene in the book. I almost thought that she wasn’t going to wake up again and that her death was going to be true, but I still had about 100 pages left so that left my mind immediately. We wondered what force was reluctant to let her start again. Possibly it was the Universe, saying that it was not yet her time to go. But if killing Hitler wasn’t her time to go, what was? Maybe Ursula hoped to end the cycle of being reborn, but in that life she had a lot less cognizance of her situation because her déjà vu was so minimal.

I liked the scene where Ursula died a natural death. I thought it was peaceful. The other two disagreed. It seemed weak that she didn’t die in service to England and that she didn’t fight for her life and lose it. Was this how she was supposed to die? Or was she fated to die in the Blitz and this life seemed wrong. I loved hearing the other opinions on my favorite ending.

Before we broke up to get back to work, we contemplated what we would change. B and I couldn’t think of anything and felt that in a time of war, our decisions take on a much stronger significance. We can’t really know what we’d do in a time period like the late 1940s. V thought she might try staying in her home country if she could start her life over. She came to the States  when she was younger and said she’s always wondered what her life would be like if she’d stayed.

I hope we get to do this again, it was really fun.

Reader, if you could change one life decision, what would it be? Why?

Until next time, write on.

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Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (3/5). The only proper way to give your book 20 endings

21 Apr

I wish I could have read it faster, but I’m really glad I got to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. My co-workers and I will get together sometime this week to talk about it and I’ll put up a summary of what we talked about.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In a mix between reincarnation and the movie Groundhog’s Day, Ursula Todd is reborn on the same snowy day in 1910 when she dies. In each of her lives, she’s subtly aware of the lives she’s lived before and is able to avoid the terrible tragedies that befell her and her family. She remembers their maid bringing the Spanish Flu into the house and killing her and her younger brother. She remembers the London Bombings by the Luftwaffe and how she’s died in them. She remembers an abusive lover and the death of a young friend. In each life, she has to decide which tragedies to avoid and which to bare.

I didn’t know when I started this that Ursula was going to continue reliving the same life. I thought the book was more about reincarnation. I think I prefer the alternative that Atkinson pursued with this novel, however. It was a really unique idea and raised a lot of good questions. What would I have done in Ursula’s situation? If I’d known of a huge international war that was coming, what would I do to stop it? In my life time, that’s September 11th (though I would still be a bit young to do much at the time). How could I have stopped that and would I have done it? I love powerful books that make you ask yourself that question.

I loved how layered the characters in this book were. We got to see them on several different life paths in the book and we could see how they reacted to Ursula in her different lives. I loved Sylvie as a character because she was well developed, but I didn’t like her. In the life where Ursula was raped, Sylvie is so rude and hateful toward her daughter that it tinged how I felt about her in all of the following lives. I liked getting to see different sides of Teddy depending on if Nancy lived or died. I adored Ursula’s change in romantic interests between lives and how she would deal with those people in her other lives, remembering them slightly as if they were ghosts. Characters in this book were very strong in general.

Ursula herself was my favorite character. I loved seeing her thrown into so many terrible situations and reacting with such insight and poise that it was incredible. She was, quite literally, an old soul in her youth and a very practical woman in middle age. Though the reader gets to see her grow up sever times, we still see her as dynamic across her lives.

There wasn’t a character that I could particularly attach myself to and relate to well. It’s sometimes hard to do that in historical fiction where the setting takes a very strong role. Having never been bombed or lived during a World War, it was difficult to relate to the characters and the struggles they felt. There were moments when I could sympathize with Hugh or Izzy or Ursula, but on a whole, I didn’t think the characters were much like me.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite part of the book was the time Ursula spent with Eva Braun in Germany. I thought it was a really interesting way to have Ursula connect with Adolf Hitler. Most WWII books written from a German point of view tend to focus on suffering (like The Book Thief or Stones from the River) but this one focused on the luxury and affluence that Hitler allowed himself. Eva and Ursula were so far from Berlin when they were in the mountains that Eva would be bored, not even aware of the war and death. I thought this was a really unique perspective of a terrible situation.

I think the repeated deaths in the London Bombings were my least favorite section of the book. It was dark, depressing, and bordered on repetitive. We would invest in Ursula so much, only to see her killed in the same building. While I know showing us her life until the point of death each time made it harder to see her die, it also made the book drag in the middle and it got to a time when I had to keep putting the book down to do something lighter and happier.

I loved the theme of sacrifice in this book. Ursula has to decide between her own happiness and doing something for the greater good, which might not even matter if the world was to begin again. How big of an impact did killing Hitler make if she has to do it in each life? Like Billy Murray in Groundhog’s Day, is she searching for the most meaning and impact a single person can make in one life? Would that be killing Hitler, or is it saving the people of London from burning buildings? What sacrifice is the greatest and how can Ursula make that sacrifice?

Writer’s Takeaways: I adored how Atkinson was able to develop characters by giving us different views of them in Ursula’s different lives. I think this would be a hard style for another writer to follow or copy, so it’s a good one to appreciate from a distance. Atkinson’s creativity must be commended.

A solid three out of five. It dragged, but it was well worth reading.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Life After Live, by Kate Atkinson | The Marlborough Reading Group
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson | mrsmamfa
Audiobook Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson | literary hoarders