Years ago, prior to blogging, I read "Case Histories" by Kate Atkinson and loved it. I made multiple vows to myself to read more of her work. I even went so far as to load a bunch of them on my Kindle. But as life would have it, I never made it around to this happy stash. It wasn't until I saw effusive, glowing reviews of Atkinson's latest (and one very convincing e-mail from Jenners) that I downloaded it for my trip to Poland. It was my first read of the vacation. Unfortunately for me, I was forced to ride out two whole weeks without being able to discuss it with anyone. Because this book must be discussed.
Synopsis: It is a wintery night in 1910 when Ursula Todd is born to a middle class banker and his wife. Sadly, the roads are snowy and the doctor is unable to arrive in time to save Ursula from the umbilical cord around her neck, and the infant dies. But that is not the end of Ursula. She comes back again and again, and over the years, meets her maker in different ways...drowning in a lake, falling off the roof, a fatal case of the flu, a bomb in the London Blitz. Yet she always gets another chance, starting back on that snowy night in 1910.
While Ursula isn't specifically aware of her previous lives, she has a sense of familiarity and dejavu that allows her to fine tune her life...avoid the water, spurn the rapist, refuse the advances of the future abusive husband. And her choices greatly affect those beyond her circle of influence. But to what end? Ursula begins to get a notion of her destiny after spending a number of lifetimes in the throes of WWII...as a starving mother, as a victim in the basement of a bombed-out building, as a search and rescue worker, as Eva Braun's best friend. In her bones, Ursula feels the effects of every dead child, missing brother, and dead father. Can she do anything to make a difference?
My thoughts: I've never read anything quite this book, and that is the highest compliment I can give. It is hard to find a story that offers something new. Sure, I've watched "Groundhog Day" 2 dozen times, and I couldn't put down Lauren Oliver's "Before I Fall", where characters are reliving a certain day until they get it right. But those reincarnations have a purpose, an end. Ursula's journey is much more complex and less definitive.
Thanks to Stephen King, I've learned that to enjoy a novel like this one, you can't question the mechanics. You just go along for the ride, accept and appreciate what is happening. And what was happening here was whip-smart writing, clever plotting, subtle humor, and a varied and in-depth experience of WWII. I loved how characters in one life would show up in others, in different roles (even a dog showed up at serendipitous moments). I became so invested in each life that I was almost sorry to see her die again, although at the same time I was excited to see which path she would take in the next round.
But something about all this vexed me. Perhaps I was looking too hard for Ursula's purpose in the cosmos. Perhaps I've watched Groundhog Day too many times. So when does this all end? If she perfects her role in the world and acts as fate has intended, will she be allowed to die at 90 and stay dead? Do her actions really make a difference? I never got my answers - maybe I'm not meant to have them. Perhaps they were there, and I didn't pick up on them. I've scoured the Internet, reading interviews and insights. I know Atkinson is smart, and there were hints of Great Insights, but even after re-reading the last chapter or two, I still couldn't get my head around it.
Be that as it may, I immensely enjoyed this read. Book clubs will have a field day with it. And I've renewed my pledge to read more Atkinson!
4.5 out of 5 stars