Monday, September 26, 2016

Book Review: Life After Life

Sorry to say, this book didn't live up to the hype, in my humble opinion. Gillian Flynn labels it "one of the best novels I've read this century." The back cover is ablaze with endorsements: "extraordinary," "brilliant," "powerful," "splendid," and "lovely." While the concept was clever and innovative (the idea that one could repeatedly restart life and do it better each time), the actual execution left a lot to be desired (a hodge-podge of recycled lives that never resonated or concluded with intriguing insights).

I'm confused at the appeal (even my bookish friend, Amy, raved about it). I found it to be perplexing and tedious. There were long passages that left me wondering where the novel was going and when I would finally be done with it all and get to wherever it was heading. Then again, the ending was foretold in the first chapter. Even if I thought that ending was thought-provoking, the process of getting to that point took 529 plodding pages.

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910, only to die when the umbilical cord wraps around her neck. But Ursula's life isn't truly over, for soon it is the same night and she is born a second time and survives. She goes on like this, living "life after life" in an attempt to get it right in the end somehow. Each life leaves ripples of dejavu in her other lives. Sometimes she takes the knowledge learned in a life (a boy who takes advantage in an isolated stairwell) and alters her existence so that she will not make the same mistake again. Sometimes not. The end goal is to right a wrong (infectious illness leading to death, murder, abusive marriage, etc.) and "practice makes perfect" until the ultimate wrong is righted through Ursula's actions.

It was hard to keep track of all the time-frames, the various lives lived, and the responses of others. It seemed like a shape-shifting novel throughout. You knew the main character would end up dying and starting life over again, but to what end? While philosophical arguments were raised (about concepts of time, the importance of individual moments, and the chance to make a difference with your life), they never left me with a sufficient take-away. I agree with Amazon reviewer, Maris Williams, who wrote: "the experience for the reader is much like The Funhouse of Mirrors, where everything warps and stretches every time you move." Another reviewer wondered if the author had written the story and then simply tossed the pages in the air and compiled them as they fell (it was truly that disjointed). If I had it to do over again (this was a book club selection that I had voted for, because of the murmurs of greatness I had been hearing), I would have saved the hours spent devouring this tiresome tale.


Amy Sorensen said...

Ah, I'm sorry! I wish you had loved it. I think for me, the "story" that is told through all of Ursula's lives is how choice changes outcome. I am fascinated by that idea...the turning-point choices in our lives and also the seemingly-small ones that make an unexpected change. My experience was in tracing how her choices changed HER outcome, and altered the world but at the same time didn't change it (the war still happens but under a different leader).

Anyway...I'm glad you didn't ONLY read it on my recommendation! I'm curious what the rest of your book group thought!

Wendy said...

Amy - As I look back, my review does sound quite heavy-handed. The book was not without some merit (one of my favorite movies is "Sliding Doors" because it emphasizes that very point you loved so in this novel). I guess I felt too confused much of the time and that confusion frustrated me. However, I will concede that I may have had a different response had I read it at a different time (books are like that, don't you think, and often they just catch you in the wrong moment). There are certainly many, many people who embraced this and I wouldn't be at all surprised if everyone in my book club enjoyed it (they have disliked several that I raved about - ha).

I am ALWAYS up for your suggestions because so often I do love the books you love. You've found many a gem for me. Thanks!

Kristin said...

I just read this book and loved it! Ha ha! But it has been my experience that about 50% of readers don't. I found a plot line that folded and refolded itself over and over interesting and that it gave an interesting twist to what would be a more common place British family war saga. :) I think that if I would've read it at a different time like busy September rather than during the summer I may have felt a bit differently about the way the story unfolds. Love your reviews!!

Wendy said...

Kristin - Perhaps I will have to try it again in a few years time. Who knows, timing might be everything. Thanks for visiting my blog.