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Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books; 544 pages; $27.99).

life after life

            The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 BC-475 BC) famously said that you cannot step into the same river twice.  Well, he didn’t know Ursula Beresford Todd, the main character in Kate Atkinson’s bonny, daring, and sublime novel Life After Life.  Time is not circular in Atkinson’s tale; rather, Ursula’s life is like an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail.  Atkinson continually recreates the character of Ursula; she is like a phoenix that is reborn over and over again.

“Become such as you are, having learned what that is,” Atkinson writes in Life After Life.  On a bitterly cold day in February of 1910, a baby is born in Britain.  The umbilical cord is wrapped around her little neck, and she does not survive.  And then, on a bitterly cold day in February of 1910, a baby is born in Britain.  The umbilical cord is wrapped around her little neck, but the doctor uses scissors (“snip, snip”), and the child lives.  Her name is Ursula (“little bear”), and she just may hold the fate of mankind in her tiny hands.

The years pass, and Ursula grows older.  Here, Atkinson ably illustrates the fragility of life in the early Twentieth Century when reaching adulthood was not guaranteed.  One by one, Ursula is felled by drowning, a fall, and the Spanish flu of 1918.  With words such as “darkness fell”, Atkinson takes Ursula’s young life.  It feels miraculous when Ursula finally enters her 20s and 30s, only to encounter a whole new set of difficulties.  Ursula perishes over and over—murdered by a violent, abusive husband; killed in the London Blitz; dead by suicide as the Russian army enters Berlin.

The author’s plot device, killing a character and then bringing her back to life, initially felt cheap and gimmicky.  Atkinson quickly won me over, though, and in record time.  Reading Life After Life, I experienced such a wide-range of emotions that I wrung my hands and gnashed my teeth.  Each time Ursula died, I grieved for her.  Then, I turned the page to find Ursula very much alive.

It is as if Atkinson has her very own reset button and simply sets things right again.  Atkinson sometimes returns to Ursula’s birth, but not always.  Other times, Atkinson resets the tale to some pivotal moment in Ursula’s past, a specific point in her life, a day that seems no different from any other, yet a day when some kind of momentous choice was made that charted the course of Ursula’s life.

I began to wonder: just what does Atkinson have in mind for Ursula?  Because clearly, why continually resurrect a character if she does not have some kind of higher purpose?  “Practice makes perfect” is an idiom Ursula’s mother repeats throughout the novel.  Ursula champions the phrase: “We can never get it right, but we must try.”  The more Ursula lives her lives, the more she learns from them.  Atkinson uses Ursula as a palimpsest.  Her life is like a piece of parchment whose text is wiped away, but traces still remain.

Ursula experiences déjà vu as she remembers her past lives.  It’s like reincarnation, except that Ursula comes back after death as the same person.  As Atkinson kills and revives Ursula, notions of predestination versus free will come into play.  In Life After Life, choices matter.  Atkinson’s aim is to have Ursula retain some of the knowledge she acquired from her past lives, information that will not only change Ursula’s fate but possibly the futures of those around her and even the fate of the world.

“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula muses as World War II destroys everything around her, “if just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in…a Quaker household.”

Her friend Ralph counters, Hitler “might have turned out just the same, Quakers or no Quakers.  You might have to kill him instead of kidnapping him.  Could you do that?  Could you kill a baby?  With a gun?  Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands?  In cold blood.”

“If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought.  Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.”  Teddy, Ursula’s beloved baby brother, was an RAF pilot who got shot down by the Germans.

Teddy once asked Ursula, “What if you had the chance to do it again and again, until you finally got it right?  Would you do it?”  And so Ursula’s purpose becomes crystal clear, as does the reason behind Atkinson’s renaissance of her protagonist.

Calling Life After Life a “highbrow Groundhog Day,” as some critics have called it, is grossly oversimplifying a beautiful and rare story.  Atkinson’s tale is not funny nor is it farcical, and Ursula does not relive the same day over and over again.  In Life After Life, Atkinson takes drama to a whole new level.  As Ursula says in the novel, “To have a character that changed and developed as it went along so that you had no idea how it was going to end up, how you were going to end up.”  She may as well be talking about herself and about anyone who reads this noteworthy tale.

Part mystery and part historical fiction, Life After Life will completely immerse you because it is such an intriguing story and because it is so darn well-written.  At turns dark, witty, sharp, clever, and poignant, Life After Life produces an unforgettable, unlikely heroine who proves just what a difference one life can make.  Life After Life left me spent, breathless, and eager to read it all again.

If Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was THE book of 2012, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson will be THE book of 2013.






Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy and The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley: A Comparison

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy (Random House; 304 pages; $23).

The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley (Simon and Schuster; 464 pages; $15).

            Over the past few years, the book world has witnessed a rising trend in which a present-day protagonist, grappling with her own problems, stumbles upon an intriguing past mystery.  Only when she solves the puzzle can she then tackle what is wrong in her own life.  Curiously, many of said novels have ties to World War II.  Recent notable books in this genre are Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2005); Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007); The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2008); and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (2009).

Two new novels are a welcome addition to this fairly recent development: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy and The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley.  Both books have a similar feel yet are very distinctive.  Both feature strong, memorable heroines and move from our own time into a past we cannot even begin to contemplate.  Yet these women must; if they do not, then they will never get on with their lives.

In Sarah McCoy’s The Baker’s Daughter, the main character is Reba Adams, a writer who lives in El Paso, Texas.  Reba dreams of going to California but has not capitalized on her vision yet: “I thought I’d start here and eventually make my way to California—L.A., Santa Barbara, San Francisco.”  She has yet to leave Texas, however.

Several things stand in Reba’s way.  She is engaged to Riki Chavez, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, but Reba is reluctant to commit.  She wears her engagement ring on a chain around her neck; she is not ready to wear it on her finger, and she may never be.  Her parents had a difficult marriage.  Vietnam affected her father so badly that he later committed suicide.  The tragedy led Reba to flee her Virginia home when she was old enough, and she has only minimal contact with her mother and sister.  She is unsure of Riki and of their relationship; most of all, Reba is unsure of herself.

Reba is like the border town in which she resides, “stuck in between” where she is and where she is headed.  She is a very flawed, even damaged, character, making her a very relatable and very real protagonist.  Like most of us, she does not have it all together.  Reba is far from perfect.

An assignment leads Reba to a German bakery where she wants to interview an elderly woman on Christmas traditions around the world.  The old woman, Elsie Meriwether, the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery, is uncooperative.  With a deadline fast approaching, Reba spends more and more time with Elsie and her daughter, Jane.  Soon, though, Reba finds she likes visiting the women.  She opens up to them.  The feeling is mutual.  Elsie opens up to Reba not about German Christmas traditions but about a Christmas in 1944, one that changed everything.

Here is where The Baker’s Daughter truly shines.  Elsie and her parents run a bakery in Garmisch, Germany, a city where Gestapo soldiers raid houses and residents fear for their lives in the worst days of World War II.  McCoy renders the bakery especially well.  I could smell, see, and taste the breads and sweet treats.  My mouth still waters thinking about them.  Goodies aside, the bakers move this part of the story.  At seventeen, Elsie is being courted by an SS officer who is closer in age to her father than to her.  She does not love him.  Rather, Elsie adores Hollywood movies and is more concerned with keeping a secret that could get her and her family killed.

McCoy has done meticulous research for The Baker’s Daughter.  The best example of her diligence is Elsie’s older sister, Hazel, a participant in the Lebensborn Program.  This was part of Germany experiment to perpetuate the Aryan race by producing blond-haired, blue-eyed German children with high morals, exceptional intelligence, and an unbreakable bond with the state.  Hazel, in effect, had babies for Germany and had to give them up.  Lebensborn was real, and McCoy accurately portrays this chapter in German history.

McCoy, little by little, never too much too soon, reveals what happens to Elsie and her family.  Elsie’s story transforms Reba in ways readers will cheer.  Thus, Elsie and her family take on the role of helper characters as they steer Reba back on the road to life.

I love The Baker’s Daughter and feel the novel is even better than Sarah’s Key.  McCoy effectively draws a comparison between anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant (read: anti-Mexican) sentiment.  She uses Riki to do this.  Rather than being heavy-handed and didactic, it works rather well.

While characters propel The Baker’s Daughter, it is the setting that drives Lucinda Riley’s The Orchid House, already a bestseller in Europe.  The true star of Riley’s novel is Wharton Park, a majestic British estate “comprising of a thousand acres of fertile farmland” that has been in the Crawford family for three hundred years.  The house, though, is not as grand as it once was.  Running the estate requires a lot of money, money the present heir, Kitt, simply does not have.

Wharton Park holds a special place in the heart of Julia Forrester, a world-renowned concert pianist.  As a child, Julia spent time there since her grandparents were long-time employees of the Crawfords and lived in a cottage on the grounds of the manor.  Her grandfather grew exotic orchids and made Wharton Park famous for the rare flowers; her grandmother, Elsie, was a lady’s maid.  Their devotion to the manor parallels that of the servants of Downton Abbey for the Granthams.  Julia’s summers at the estate were dreamlike: “The tranquility and warmth of the hothouses—sitting snugly in the corner of the kitchen garden, sheltered against the cruel winds that blew in from the North Sea during the winter—stayed in her memory all year.”

A horrible tragedy makes Julia remember Wharton Park all the more.  Her husband, Xavier, and their son, Gabriel, were killed in a car accident.  A forest fire started as a result.  Their deaths have understandably broken Julia.  She is a changed woman unable to play the music she played the night of the catastrophe.  She seeks comfort in a cottage near the sea in Norfolk.  But Wharton Park beckons to her.  It is an idyllic place where she so desperately needs solace, “a place of peace.”  Julia recalls wistfully that at Wharton Park, “nothing changed.”  “Alarms and timetables weren’t in charge, it was nature dictating the rhythm.”

That earlier, easier time appeals to Julia so much that she returns to Wharton Park for an estate sale.  While there, she runs into Kitt Crawford, the new heir.  They had briefly met as children when Julia played his late uncle’s piano but have had no contact since then.  A friendship develops with the promise of more.  Kitt is renovating the cottage her grandparents had called home.  In the midst of remodeling, he discovers an old diary of a man imprisoned in Thailand during World War II.  Kitt mistakenly assumes the diary is the property of Julia’s grandfather.  Her grandmother, though, reveals the diary belonged to the deceased Lord Crawford, Kitt’s uncle, who, together with Julia’s grandfather, was a prisoner.

Julia finally comes back to life as her grandmother tells her events before and after the war.  This is my favorite part of The Orchid House.  The lives of two young couples take shape: William and Elsie and Harry and Olivia.  Riley’s real focus, though, is on Olivia and Harry.  She marries Harry only to find him kissing another man.  Devastated, she continues on with her unhappy marriage because that is what was done back then.  The outbreak of war sends both Harry and William to Thailand, where they are later captured.  After the war, William returns to England before his master; Harry suffers more sickness and thus takes longer to recuperate.  While in Thailand, Harry falls in love with a young Thai woman named Lidia.  He plans to divorce his wife and marry Lidia.  However, after he returns to Wharton Park, he must fulfill his obligations to his wife, his family, and to the estate.  Harry writes to her.  When his letters go unanswered, he sends his trusted servant, William, to Thailand.  William’s journey changes everyone’s lives forever.

Just when I think Julia and Kitt will live in bliss, Riley throws several curveballs.  She does this to mix things up.  First, we learn that Julia and Kitt are kissing cousins, which I finally decided to go along with.  Second, Julia’s husband rises from the dead.  This is difficult to swallow.  I could not wait for Julia to leave the horrible cad.

Riley reminds me of Kate Morton, and I also see traces of Downton Abbey.  If you are a fan of either, I recommend this novel.  It is easy to understand how The Orchid House took Europe by storm.  I predict the same will happen in the United States.

The Baker’s Daughter is a character-driven novel, while The Orchid House is propelled by its setting.  In that sense, they are very different.  Each has a distinctive voice and feel.  Yet both feature heroines stuck in a certain place in life, desperate, tragic, or even both.  Neither protagonist can continue on the path she is on.  She must find a new road.  A past mystery or secret is the only thing that can propel the women forward.  A quest is what each must undergo.  Solving the riddle means another chance at happiness and at life.  Perhaps that is why these novels appeal so.  Second chances are a universal desire.


Filed under book review, books, fiction