The Short Version: Ursula Todd is born one snowy night in 1910 and dies shortly thereafter. But she’s also born that night and survives, beginning(?) an epic life that might just change the face of the twentieth century… or might belong to just another ordinary face in the crowd.
The Review: What a complex novel to try and encapsulate in just a thousand or so words. For starters, I’m going to try to avoid SPOILERS but also, man, it’s probably going to happen in one way or another so consider yourself warned. Anyway, I’ll tell you what, I’m looking forward to the discussion I’m going to have with my BookClub regarding this novel next week. That much is certain. (oh by the way – you’ll all get the special treat of hearing some of that discussion as well as seeing short reviews from the group, as Little Brown has generously asked us to be early readers!)
But for now, my own thoughts. And, having let it sit for several hours, I have to say that I feel… let down is not the right term, not by a long shot – this book deserves quite a lot of the hype that’s being thrown its way, by publications and authors alike. Someone (Neil Gaiman? Joe Hill? Someone) on Twitter mentioned that they think this will win Ms. Atkinson the Booker next year and I have to say I’m inclined to agree. It’s an adventurous and complex novel, written well and featuring an immensely likable protagonist.
But does it stand up as something truly exceptional? And I have to say that it doesn’t quite hit the mark – it only reaches so far as perhaps “really very good” in my book. But you have to understand, I’m coming at this book as someone who is already well-versed in the sci-fi (for lack of a better term…) concepts at play here – and the philosophies as well. And I felt like so much of this was a layperson’s version of some really intense theories and scenarios – and that playing to the middle 50% was a bit bothersome.
Let’s start this way: do you watch Community? If yes, you’ll’ve seen the fantastic episode entitled “Remedial Chaos Theory”. Even if you don’t like the show, go look it up on Hulu or the interwebs and watch even the first ten minutes. This is a perfect example of a multiple/parallel universe story, told without sacrificing the geeky integrity of the theory itself. Or look at the “Fez Mop” method of storytelling at the end of Doctor Who‘s fifth season – another high-concept theory told simply and smartly without it feeling as though they’re talking down to you. And thinking of these two specific (although there are certainly many more) incidents… for some reason – and I can’t quite put my finger on it – I felt as though Atkinson was pulling her punches in this book. I don’t want to say that I felt as though she was talking down to the reader but rather that she, at the last moment, pulled back in concern that her readers wouldn’t get it if she got too heavy into the philosophy stuff. Instead, she just name drops Nietzsche and Donne and Austen – writers and philosophers both, sprinkling the text as though presenting the theoretical CV of the novel. But I was just irritated by the prim and checkmark-esque way they were dropped in.
The other thing that irritated me (since we’re covering that first, it seems) about the novel – and this one is really the defining flaw, to my mind – is that I never really had a sense of what the plot was. Atkinson has come up with this fantastic plot: a girl who, through some magic of the universe, is able to relive her life after she dies and change things. It isn’t time travel, but she has some inkling of sense (a deja vu sort of thing) that allows her to shift the timelines. The book opens rather spectacularly, with Ursula killing Hitler before he can take power in Germany, and that sort of bold statement says to me “okay, get ready, we’re going to really go places” but the book never lives up to that initial sensation of “whoa” because, again, I think Atkinson seems to get scared. Scared of the limitless possibilities of the novel’s driving idea. Is this a World War II revision, Inglourious Basterds style? Or is it the story of a woman trying to seek out the most-perfect life and being lucky enough to try it until she gets it right?
See, the latter is a movie called Groundhog Day and I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen that film referenced here more often (regarding this book) because that, much more so than the WWII thing, is the real feel of this novel. At least, that was what I took away from it. And when you look at it that way, this novel feels quite like lowbrow masquerading as highbrow (again, the pulling-of-punches sensation).
BUT! But but but! This is not a bad thing, I realize. Because the writing is beautiful. Ursula is such a fantastic character and (uniquely in literature, I realize), we’re able to experience nearly every range of emotions and events with her through this plot device. The variations on her first kiss alone – and the fallout from each of those events, taking her life in so many different ways – are dynamic and amazingly presented. The butterfly effect, of one event sending a ripple through the rest of your timeline, has never been more beautifully presented than it is here. Not ever, bar none. And the scenes during the Blitz in World War II are harrowing – the most gripping and realistic depictions of life during the Blitz I’ve ever read, and I think that is (again) because we get to see it from so many angles but from the same perspective (if that makes sense). Urusla is living in Kensington, she’s living uptown, she’s living here and there and with this person or that person, she dies this way, she dies that way, she runs back across her timeline but from a different angle… it’s really tricky stuff and done with considerable aplomb. It’s here that Atkinson’s writing really shines.
But then the end of the novel comes along and throws several really big wrenches into the workings of the book so far. There isn’t really an ending, for one thing – what I thought was going to be a Dark Tower-esque cyclical thing wasn’t and instead the book sort of sputters out, as though segments were still out of order (Composition No. 1 style, only in this case the pages WERE supposed to be in a particular order) and needed to be re-placed. But I have several issues with the last 75 pages or so and I feel the need (since I’m really going in-depth here) to talk them out a bit. If you haven’t figured it out, SPOILERS are everywhere.
So we have this gorgeous, bravura chapter where Atkinson speeds through Ursula’s life and her various timelines begin to bleed across each other and run into each other and cause a sort of mental breakdown… that leads to her suicide and eventual run-in with Hitler. Were the book to end here, in a sort of cyclical thing (as mentioned before), I would’ve stood up and applauded. Everything would’ve come clear and it would have truly been the most incredible (if mind-boggling and complex) novel I’ve read in a long time. Bar none. BUT INSTEAD IT CONTINUES. And we get a scene where it is implied – out of NOWHERE, might I add – that Sylvie, Urusla’s mother, also has this pre-cog/reincarnation thing going on. And that is a totally unnecessary, unsupported, and uncalled for twist. Then the novel sputters out on a “happy” ending, with Teddy having (in this particular timeline) survived and it’s sort of implied that he might’ve known that Ursula had a hand in saving him this time around or something… it’s all rather hazy and strange and entirely unsatisfying. I don’t need a novel to satisfy me – “numbness is a feeling too”, as Bret Easton Ellis said recently (and always, I guess) – but this just frustrated me. It felt so unnecessary and like (to beat a dead horse) Atkinson couldn’t pull the trigger on the really dynamic and crazy intellectual novel she’d put to paper and so she had to tack on this ending to mitigate some of the intellectual crazy that would’ve likely put off more mainstream readers.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I struggled with this rating, I gotta tell you. Because I felt as though the failures of the book, especially at the end, were big ones – to me, anyway. But the writing is so beautiful and the concepts (no matter how elementarily they’re put forward) are always thought-provoking, so I’m glad that people are going to read this book and consider it. If anything, it is the PERFECT book for a book club – it almost demands to be discussed afterwards, because the thoughts and possibilities are legion and can only be unravelled with conversation (or, in my case, a rambling half-again-as-long-as-usual review).