I first heard about Life After Life in a spring issue of Chatelaine magazine, where it was described brightly as “Sliding Doors meets Back to the Future.” I love both of those movies, so it made sense that this would be a book that I’d probably love too. It also had a cute fox on the cover. C’mon. Cute fox. How can you not?
Because I’ve been making an effort to be more cost-conscious this spring/summer, I placed a hold on it at the public library about two months ago. At number 63 on the hold list, I didn’t think I’d have a hope of reading this book before the end of 2013, but to my surprise, I got an email about a week ago saying it was ready for me to pick up! I raced to the library to get reading and … was instantly let down.
The book begins in a sort of Groundhog Day style. Ursula Todd is born in England and dies. And then you flip the page. Ursula Todd is born in England and lives. It’s not immediately clear what is going on or why (I actually thought for a moment that the library copy might have been a misprint, because the book kept starting, and starting again).
Even once I figured it out, it was hard to hold my interest. Every time Ursula “dies” she gets a re-do, and each time, she finds herself increasingly closer to meeting Hitler. A mission to assassinate Hitler isn’t problematic on its own (actually, it’s pretty interesting), but it takes so long to get there, and the story is so contrived, that I just really didn’t find myself caring about it.
I had a hard time caring about Ursula, too. She’s not particularly warm, or engaging, or interesting. And even when she was in danger, I find that I didn’t care about her, because she’d just die and get a do-over again.
Chatelaine’s review loved Atkinson’s sharp references to philosophy and history (and so, for that matter, did the New York Times), but that wasn’t enough to keep me engaged. I got lost in it, but not in a fun way. I was just lost. I feel like this is one of those polarizing novels that people say is good because they’re not entirely sure what else to say about it.
It may be well-written, and it can have all the philosophy, politics and history in the world within its pages, but I did not enjoy reading Life After Life. I was glad when it was over, and I was glad it came from the library so I could get rid of it when I was done.