Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Club Debriefing

Once again, we had a great difference of opinion on the book this month, which was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. I thought it was an engrossing story and also a series of engrossing stories.  Some people thought it was unnecessarily repetitive.

I don't suppose anyone could deny that it's technically repetitive; think Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.  Yes, there's a level on which the same events are playing out over and over again.  But the spots that some people (well, let's call them "Kris") found to drag were the parts that I thought were the most carefully constructed.

Wait, though, let's back up.  The premise of the book is that Ursula Todd is born, and dies at birth.  And she is born, saved, and lives on.  Later, she drowns in the ocean. But there is also a version where she is saved.  And so on, throughout her life--she dies, and, with a twist, she lives.

Now, the way this unfolds, I won't say it's perfect.  For the first third of the book, I couldn't quite get a handle on it.  Ursula was very little, and it was much more about her mother.  Really, except for the occasional do-over to save Ursula's life, it was very much  a quiet domestic story, about finding meaning in the mundanities of life in the English countryside of the early 1900s.  This is the opposite of something I would generally like to read.

But as the story moves into Ursula's adolescence and adulthood, it starts to come together.  Individual lives illustrate different points, and also fit together to look at how a life shapes itself.  A small incident can change the way you think about yourself, which might change how you react to a bigger incident, which can change the whole course of your life.  So much of what happens to us is luck--and not just luck with externalities, but also luck on how you react in a moment, what you notice, how you perceive a situation.

Anyway, as someone who has book-clubbed many a time, I thought a list of discussion questions might be the best way to approach this book in a blog post without being too spoilery.  I will leave you with the fact that I was not convinced by the first third of the book, but was quite convinced by the next two thirds, and was somewhat confused by the end.

1) What were the "rules" of Ursula's repeated lives?  Did your understanding of those rules change over the course of the book?  To what extent were the changes from one go-around to the next a result of her purposeful changes, versus simple luck? At first I thought the whole idea was a sort of quantum mechanics thing, where these are all ways things could have gone.  Then I thought it was about what it would be like to live with the idea of these other quantum realities close to you.  But by the end it seemed more intentional than that.

2) How did Ursula's character change over the course of the book?  Do you think there was more change over the large arch of the book, or within individual life stories?  Do other characters seem to change over time, or does your view of them change as Ursula grows up?  (Especially Izzie, Hugh, and Sylvie.  What did you think of Sylvie?  I had a very different opinion about  her in the beginning, when she was almost the star of the book, than at the end.)

3) Related, what kinds of things did this book have to say about motherhood?  How was Ursula's feelings about and relationship with motherhood related to her "fate?"

4) There are quite a few details that seem significant but don't come together as major plot elements, or don't carry from one story to another.  (Sylvie in London when Ursula is there in secret; the fate of Izzie's baby.)

5) Wasn't Maurice AWFUL?  Are real people ever that unadulteratedly horrible?  Do you know anyone that nasty?  (You should probably be careful discussing this one at book club, depending on whether any of the members know your extended family.)

6) What was Jimmy all about?  Why was there a Jimmy?  (Someone in book club pointed out that birth control wasn't available in the '40s, to which I reply that I know why Sylvie and Hugh had Jimmy, but I want to know why Kate Atkinson had him.)  It seems like you've already got Teddy as the baby of the family.  What role does Jimmy play in the family and in the story?

7) What happened at the end there?  Did it work?  Did one of those lives become real?  Was the last one the "getting it right" version?  There seem almost to be two endings, one where she kills You Know Who and one where she doesn't but everything turns out all right in the end anyway.  (You know, except what happened to Sylvie, but by that time it was water under the bridge, right?  You do still follow me, don't you?)

Anyway, that's my list, cleverly non-spoilery.  I really wanted to use the title of a certain episode of Dr. Who for this post, but THAT would have been a spoiler.  Although I suppose so is the prologue of the book, if you look at it that way.

No comments: