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REVIEW:  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

REVIEW: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after lifeDear Ms. Atkinson:

My aunt lent me this book; she and I do not usually have the same literary tastes, hers tilting strongly in favor of endless novels of the Tudor court (I think she could name the kings and queens of England, and most of their relatives, in her sleep). Life After Life was something a bit different for her, as it was for me.

In February 1910, in a modest English country home called Fox Corner, a baby is born early. The doctor hasn’t arrived, due to a snowstorm raging outside. The child’s father is away on family business. The child’s mother, Sylvie Todd, has only the family maid, Bridget (who is all of 14, and new to the position), to rely upon. The child, a girl, comes too quickly, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, and dies before she can draw her first breath:

The little heart. A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot.
Darkness fell.

In February 1910, Dr. Fellowes arrives at Fox Corner just in time to save the child later christened Ursula Todd from dying at birth. He’s able to make the trip just before the roads close due to bad weather. It’s a good thing that he’s there, as Ursula is born with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But Ursula is saved and thrives until June 1914, when on a family holiday, she drowns at the beach.

In February 1910, Ursula Todd is born. She grows up to be a vigorous and happy child, despite the fact that she’s almost lost at birth (the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck) and again is rescued from drowning at four while on family holiday. An amateur painter who has set up his easel on the beach notices Ursula in the water and saves her.

Life After Life poses the question, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Ursula does have that chance, though I’m not sure she finds it that wonderful; she experiences a fair amount of suffering, usually before dying an ignominious death.

The book spans the bulk of the 20th century, focusing particularly on Ursula’s growing-up years (marked by the Great War and the subsequent influenza epidemic) and the horrors of the London Blitz during World War II. The latter calamity takes Ursula several tries to live through intact (and honestly she never really seems quite alright, afterward). The blitz is vividly and grimly brought to life, almost too much so for me; it’s heavy stuff.

I want to be clear; Life After Life is not a romance. Ursula has various relationships in her sundry lives, but most of them are not particularly romantic – an abusive marriage, an adulterous affair, another marriage to an ambitious Nazi, some hasty and furtive couplings performed in the shadows of war. Ursula is not particularly romantic minded, at least not after about age 16, an age at which she has vague romantic longings for (and in one lifetime, a bit of a secret romance with) a neighbor boy. (Her mother would not approve; the boy is Jewish.)

Despite the lack of romance, the book that Life After Life vaguely reminded me of was The Time Traveler’s Wife. I almost added a “time travel” tag to this review, though Ursula does not, strictly speaking, time travel. But her repeated “do-overs” do in essence give her some of the chances that a time-traveler might have, even if she’s not always fully aware of them.

That said, there is a sense that as Ursula goes through her incarnations, she’s trying to get things “right,” particularly later on, as she becomes more aware, at least on some level, that she’s lived this all before. The blurbs I’ve read for the book often suggest that “getting it right” might mean stopping Hitler in his rise to power, and the book does play with that idea. But it’s not the driving force of the story: most often “getting it right” just means not dying the way she died in the previous incarnation; in one case it means avoiding a disastrous assault that ruins her life and leads indirectly to her death several years later.

One of the things I wondered about  (because a book like this seems suited for being thought over and picked apart) was the fact that in each life, it appears that Ursula gets a little further. She manages to avoid or prevent whatever series of events resulted in her life ending the previous time. Sometimes this means trying to change the actions of others, as when she tries repeatedly to stop Bridget from going to London with her sweetheart for end-of-war celebrations that ultimately introduce the deadly 1918 influenza into the Todd household.

This makes a certain amount of sense (given that we know Ursula is on some level aware of her previous lives), except when you take into account her first death, over which she had no control (you could argue the same for the drowning, though at least then she was a sentient being and may have done something just slightly different in order to capture the attention of her rescuer). So what I wondered was: how in control is Ursula of her own destiny?

I found Ursula’s consciousness of her past lives fascinating. Often she’s just nagged by a strong sense of deja vu; at other times, memories pop up as fully formed thoughts. In one scene, late in the book, Ursula is seeing (for the first time in this incarnation) the psychiatrist she is sent to by her parents, who are concerned about her strange behavior. Without thinking, she asks Dr. Kellet about the absence of a picture of his son Guy, killed in World War I, which she expects to see in his office. He replies, “Who is Guy?” which presents the intriguing possibility that as Ursula’s life changes with each incarnation, so do the lives of others. Whether these changes are incidental or somehow affected by Ursula was unclear to me (I mean, obviously Ursula doesn’t control the universe, nor is she at the center of it). Late in the book a beloved character thought shot down in the war turns up alive, which hadn’t been the case in previous lives (those where she had gotten past the end of WWII). I thought perhaps Ursula had let herself die in order to come to an incarnation where the other character did live, but I couldn’t figure out how (or if) she was supposed to have any control over his life or death, or she was just going to die as many times as it took for something to change.

Life after Life is richly populated with well-drawn secondary characters: Ursula’s mother Sylvie, not terribly maternal and vaguely dissatisfied with life; her father, Hugh, who first appears through Sylvie’s eyes as a bit bumbling and bourgeoisie (Sylvie’s family fortunes fell after her father died unexpectedly), but who ultimately comes across in Ursula’s view as one of the kindest, wisest and gentlest characters in the book. Ursula is very close to her sister Pamela, a stalwart ally against their older brother Maurice, who is the most consistently unlikable character, rude and self-important from boyhood through middle age. Ursula’s feckless Aunt Izzie is a vibrant character – she does swoop in and rescue Ursula a couple of times, but mostly serves as an object lesson on living irresponsibly and landing on your feet.

Life after Life is a serious book, but it’s leavened by a particular, droll British sense of humor throughout. It was fun to see some of the bits and motifs that recurred through each life, such as the less-than-stellar veal a la russe that the Todd’s cook, Mrs. Glover, insists on serving to the family.

I am in the strange position of recommending this book while still kind of warning off traditional romance readers. Not that I’d discourage anyone from reading Life after Life; perhaps it’s just that it has a very slightly downbeat quality for me that I think makes it unromantic in both the smaller and larger senses. Still, it’s engrossing and original, and my grade is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  An Unlikely Union by Shannon Farrington

REVIEW: An Unlikely Union by Shannon Farrington

The Doctor’s Wounded Heart

Union Army physician Evan Mackay runs his ward of the Baltimore military hospital with tremendous skill but no warmth. He will do his duty by the Confederate soldiers in his care, but sympathy and tenderness left him after the death of his brother, a Federal soldier. So why can’t he stop himself from warming to his beautiful, compassionate, unapologetically Southern nurse?

Two years of war have shown Emily Davis that the men on both sides of the war need all the comfort and care they can get. And that includes a stubborn, prickly Scottish doctor. As Evan opens his heart to Emily, she can only hope he’ll let her fill it with forgiveness…and love..

Dear Ms. Farrington,

Ever since reading the first book in this series “Her Rebel Heart” last year, I had kept you and the series in the back of my mind, hoping that it would be revisited. Several secondary characters were introduced and given unfinished backstories – something that tends to gnaw at me when I’ve enjoyed a world that an author has created. I was happy to see the next installment offered at Harlequin and hoped questions would be answered as their lives were explored.

An-Unlikely-UnionIt’s two years after the first book and the horrific battle of Gettysburg has flooded the city of Baltimore with the injured soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Emily Davis and her friends have worked at the military hospital for over a year, slowly earning the trust of the medical staff for their dedication to caring for whoever needs their help and for their growing skill as nurses. Only one doctor refuses to overlook the issue that none of the women signed the Oath of Allegiance without altering it. But then they’re Baltimore rebels as far as Evan Mackay is concerned and he doesn’t care that anyone knows it.

Evan lost his younger, soldier, brother to the conflict when the townspeople rioted against the Federal troops who were in the city in 1861 and then lost his wife to childbirth after he had volunteered to join the Army Medical Corps. He views his time in the city as being in prison with rebels, resents caring for the very men who have raised arms against their country – though his dedication to his profession ensures the care is the best he can offer – and loathes Baltimore and all its Belles.

Emily feels drawn to nurse those in need regardless of their allegiance though she’s honest in refusing to sign an Oath that would require her to potentially deny aid and succor to her childhood friends who fight for the South. Dr. Mackay might be the best surgeon at the hospital but his prickly bedside manner and coldness towards Southerners holds him back, in her opinion, from delivering the best care she knows he’s capable of. But she’s going to “soldier on” – forgive the pun – in killing him with kindness just to prove she can.

So we have another excellent conflict set-up that goes beyond any little misunderstandings. Evan views this city, its citizens and Southerners as the people who took his brother from him and are probably only a hair’s breath away from rebellion against their government. He’ll treat ‘em but he doesn’t have to be nice while doing it. Emily supports the US Constitution, abhors slavery but still resents the fact that Baltimore and Maryland are occupied and her people treated with suspicion.

I felt the issues were well laid out, pertinent, and compelling. But after a while, I got tired of being beaten over the head with Evan’s issues. He’d take a step forward and then a step back in resolving things. At the end of every scene, he’d still seethe with anger. At the slightest hint that his suspicions were correct, rage would continue to boil up inside him. Emily meanwhile made slow but steady forward progress. By increments she realized that she was viewing Evan unfairly, that God loves everyone even if we don’t, that her faith urged her to change in how she interacted with Evan – namely that she couldn’t just do lip service to praying for him, she needed to really mean it. I could see her gradual change while it took a “Saul on the road to Damascus” suddenness for Evan to change. I can understand and accept both speeds of change but having to watch Evan get mad, get (slightly) over it, get mad, rinse and repeat got repetitious.

The romance seemed to me to flow directly out of the change in the characters’ faith. As Emily tried to pray for Evan to be at peace, she began to see him as the man he was unencumbered by bitterness and grief. Her change in heart seemed a gradual shift over the course of the book while it took Evan a while to get beyond his viewpoint of her as a society Belle his grudging admiration for Emily’s nursing skills. Again, once he had, his change, acceptance and growing romantic feelings quickly blossomed.

I did enjoy seeing Sam and Julia again and the evidence of their happy life so far. Their inclusion here felt necessary to the main story at hand. A few other characters appeared and I hope that one couple in particular will feature in a future novel. The tension in occupied Baltimore still remains as well as the divided loyalties of this “neutral” state. I wish more of the story focused on the awful fact that the Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t freed the slaves of Maryland yet but perhaps that is for a future story. I’ll keep checking the offerings at Harlequin to find out. B-

~Jayne

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