Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? If you were me, you would start a story and three steps in, you’d die or suffer some other horrible fate. So, you’d go back to the beginning, start again, but make a different decision when you died, only to die again two choices later. You’d start again, over and over, trying to get to a happy, satisfying ending, preferably one where you found a treasure chest of gold. Reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was a bit like listening to someone read aloud a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but with fewer ninjas, ant people, and abominable snowmen, and more twentieth century fates and well-developed characters. And much better writing.
Life After Life tells the story/stories of Ursula Todd. The book opens with a brief scene in 1930s Germany, when a young woman (Ursula) attempts to kill Hitler. From there, we jump back to February 11, 1910–the day Ursula is born in the middle of a snowstorm. The doctor isn’t able to reach her mother in time, and she dies. We jump back to February 11th, this time the doctor makes it, and saves Ursula. Five years later, she drowns at the beach. The circle repeats, and this time a gentleman painting the beach scene sees Ursula and saves her. And Ursula slowly grows up, we see different versions of her life, with flashes back to very slightly different versions of February 11, 1910. Ursula doesn’t completely remember her past lives, but she grows up with a disturbing sense of déjà vu that guides her (Spanish Flu turns out to be a particularly hard death to avoid).
Throughout the book, the opening scene with Hitler was in the back of my mind. Could she do it? Knowing what had happened, could she prevent the second world war–the war, the bombings, the genocide? The second half of the book really turns into a World War II novel (one of my favorite types of book), including one version of her life where Ursula ends up befriending Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime companion, prior to the war while living in Germany, giving her an unwelcome front row seat to everything.
While the premise and story were fascinating, what I really loved about this book were the well-written characters, especially her father, who calls her Little Bear, her very believable siblings (who range from the very likeable Pamela and Teddy to the rather repulsive Maurice), and her slightly crazy aunt, Izzie. Even Ursula is fascinating. She’s always Ursula, but she is also slightly different each time according to her life experiences. I felt like I knew these characters by the end.
Speaking of the end of the book, the way to book wrapped up was my only real quarrel with it. I won’t spoil anything, but I felt like I was missing something. The few chapters on the end seemed very random. I don’t know why they were chosen to end the book. Did I miss the whole point of the book? What exactly was Atkinson trying to do? What did they mean? I have one other question about the end, but I need to find someone else who has read it to discuss it, because I don’t want to spoil it for all of you!
In the end, this was a wonderful book–from the premise, to the writing, to the characters. It kept me interested and thinking the entire time. 5 stars.