“History is all about ‘what ifs’”*
There was a lot of hype leading up to the release of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life—I saw this one on the Millions’ list, on ads on Goodreads, on people’s blog posts, on Amazon’s anticipated list, and on many other blogs and publications. I pre-ordered it to see what the fuss was about, but I was prepared to be disappointed. I guess I’m just pessimistic like that.
Other than one point about 2/3 of the way through when I got a little tired of poor Ursula screwing up her life and dying again, I LOVED this title. It has so many of the things that I love: a fantasy element, philosophical musing, history, real characters, a thought-provoking story-line.
Life After Life follows the life/lives of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 to a moderately well-off English family living in a town outside of London. Ursula is born dead—strangled on the umbilical cord. Then she’s born again, and this time she makes it—but then she dies of drowning. Or gas inhalation. Or falling. So she’s born again—and again, and again, and again, living out different scenarios of all the different choices that she makes throughout her life.
It was so incredibly fascinating to see how miniscule choices can change the course of a life—the butterfly effect. What I found even more interesting, though, is Atkinson’s assumption that by making different choices, we shape our personality and the choices we make for years to come.
“’[Hitler]’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.’ No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.” (360)
The choices & personality that we choose affects those around us—but not everyone. Some characters—Ursula’s aunt, her sister Pamela—were remarkably stable in their futures, while others—her mother, her brother Teddy—varied enormously in their choices. Do some of us have more potential for variation than others? Are some of us fated to some things? What can change, and what do we have a choice about?
I adored this book and all the things that it had me thinking about—the nostalgia of wondering what my life would look like if I had made different choices.
“I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history” (474).
The whole book—the whole wonderful, slightly-too-long opus—can be summed up in the one quote that I started this musing with. What if you had taken a different way home? What if you said no instead of yes? What if you travelled to Paris instead of Venice? What would your life be like then?
I read this one straight through without stopping; I overcooked the spaghetti noodles for dinner because I was trying to read and cook simultaneously. Five stars.
*quote from page 473