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The Undertow

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  705 ratings  ·  148 reviews
The American debut of an enthralling new voice: a vivid, indelibly told work of fiction that follows four generations of a family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century - a novel about inheritance, about fate and passion, and about what it means to truly break free of the past.

This is the story of the Hastings family - their secrets, their loves and losses, dreams a
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 15th 2012 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2011)
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LCA I think the author managed to capture the feel of each era and each time the focus shifted to a different family member, the reader was able to see th…moreI think the author managed to capture the feel of each era and each time the focus shifted to a different family member, the reader was able to see the other characters from a new perspective.(less)

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Average rating 3.45  · 
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 ·  705 ratings  ·  148 reviews

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This is my second book by Jo Baker. I adore how this author writes. I adore how she strings together her words. I adore the simplicity of her lines. Simple lines that speak volumes. In my review of A Country Road, A Tree I wrote: “The writing is not flowery nor elaborate. It catches the atmosphere of a place, emotions and events with a minimum of words. The result is clean and strong, efficient, moving, deep and philosophical all at the same time.” The same is true here. I cannot give a book wit ...more
Nov 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It feels terribly clichéd to talk about words painting pictures but, although I have tried to find other words, I can really think of no better way to express my feelings about this book.

The author allows her reader to observe lives, visiting and watching. And it works beautifully, because she understands the maxim show don’t tell.

She writes in the first person present tense, something I don’t usually like. But after the first page I didn’t think about it. I was caught up.

The story opens in T
Jul 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
"Don't look beyond the next ten yards," is the advice Mr. Rudd gives Billy Hasting, a cyclist and the second generation Hastings protagonist in this multi-generational novel. The advice echoes forward across the years to the final Hastings, Billie, who has learned from her family history to take her joy when and where she can find it. In juxtaposition to this perhaps hopeful advice is the looming shadow of the evil Mr. Sully and his bitten-off earlobe, saved by Billy's mother and accidentally pa ...more
Chris Witkowski
Jan 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Was looking for a book to borrow from the library for my new Kindle and happened upon this, knowing absolutely nothing about it, not really expecting too much. I was pleasantly surprised. This is a haunting novel that spans four generations of of a British family, starting with William Hastings as he marches off to World War I, leaving his pregnant new bride who spends her days longing for the postcards he sends from the "exotic" places he was posted to. The novel is broken into rather short sec ...more
Eh. Interesting premise, but under 350 pages to tell your story of four generations is not enough. No character is fleshed out, what is put on paper is highly unlikeable. These are really not people I want to read about. Except Billie, who's ok. But she's too little, too late. We don't spend much time with her either. Baker keeps lighting down on our protagonists during not particularly interesting times. Major events in their lives have either happened in the past or is yet to happen. This is a ...more
Gabi Coatsworth
I enjoyed this book, perhaps because I'm British but live in the US, and perhaps because I'm interested in the wars that shaped the last century. The structure is interesting, though the short extracts from the lives of four generations of a British family where all the protagonists are called a version of William made me feel that perhaps I wanted a four book saga. The writer pulls no punches in writing about war and its effect on Britain's ordinary families, and for that I give her credit. For ...more
Carolyn Mck
This is a family saga - following different generations from the First World War to the current day. This is not my preferred genre - I think it's almost inevitable that as an author skips from one generation to the next that development of character will be sacrificed to a broader canvass. That's what I found here. I loved the first section and the character of William. I thought the descriptions of his inner conflicts after leaving behind a brief marriage to join the navy, as well as the way t ...more
Sarah Beth
Apr 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
I won this novel as a giveaway on Goodreads.

This is a generational novel that follows four generations of the Hastings family from William in WWI, his son Billy, a champion cyclist who ends up in WWII, his son Will who becomes an Oxford professor, and his daughter Billie, who is an artist in present day. This book was originally published in the UK with the title The Picture Book. The former title refers both to a book of postcards the original William sent back from WWI, but also describes the
May 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
Jo Baker's American debut of a novel is an enthralling, moving story of one family crossing four generations of time. The chapters move from one couple to the next, including their children and the process of growing up along the way. Each generation encounters their own unique hardships, including different wars, and Baker illustrates these challenges eloquently, allowing the reader to easily connect with the characters.

William is the first man discussed, and goes into the Navy in 1914. His so
Apr 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
If you like stories that deeply explore a concentrated slice of life, The Undertow will provide you with a very satisfying read. Personally, I like that type of writing and believe it is accomplished very effectively by British writers. Jo Baker reminds me of writers like Helen Dunsmore, Mona Simpson, Margo Livesey - writers who give us a worldview where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. By exploring several generations of the same family, focusing on how people react to circumstances ...more
Dec 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: literary-fiction
I thought this was an interesting book about how war impacted several generations of one family. While I enjoyed reading it, it had some flaws. The biggest being, until the final Billie, there were no likeable characters. Relationships consisted of the party who had an extramarital affair for often incomprehensible reasons and the pathetic and/or self-righteous injured party. The book felt like a series of short stories, which were compelling to read but made me feel like I never fully got to kn ...more
Cian O hAnnrachainn
Jun 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way, and Jo Baker does a fine job of presenting that desperation.

The novel follows four generations of a British family, from the onset of WW I through modern times. Each generation struggles with poverty in a manner befitting the setting, and each generation is possessed of a certain hope that things will get better so they hang on.

The author uses present tense to lend a sense of immediacy, drawing in the reader. The characters are so thoroughly Br
Jan 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Starting just before WW1 this is the story of 4 generations, each one with their own talents. The final focus on the gt grand daughter neatly pulls together the story. In the final two pages the story links to the future and events which the reader will be familiar with. Although I didn't like all the main characters by an means it was an enjoyable read. There were some open ends which kept the tension going. There was no sense of the author giving her opinion - the characters talked for themsel ...more
Aliki Ekaterini  Chapple
This is the US title of The Picture Book, one of my favourite novels of the last year. Lyrical and lucid, the book's series of snapshots from the life of one family over most of a century has lingered in my mind over the months since I read it in a way that many a wordier tome would envy. Baker's characters are tenderly, but not uncritically examined, their foibles as well as their heroism, and she has a gift for the unexpected turn of descriptive phrase which catalyzes a broader understanding. ...more
Apr 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
This book was beautifully written with rich, deep characters and a compelling storyline. The story spans four generations with a feel of short stories about each yet neatly intertwined so that the book has a nice overall flow. This story was hard to put down, which is surprising for me since I am usually impatient with short stories as they often leave me wanting more. Instead, this book gave enough detail to make me love and enjoy the characters, yet kept moving at a rapid pace.

Reader received
Kirsty Darbyshire
Jan 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: kindle
I picked this up because I liked Fleur's review of it. If you're in the mood for a family tale that takes you from 1914 to, I forget exactly, 2000 and a bit, but isn't exactly a family saga then this is the thing to read. Short portraits of the lives of four generations that make a great story when they are put together. Quite delightful. ...more
The Undertow chronicles the Hastings family and their secrets, dreams and heartbreaks. The book spans between 1914-2004 and is comprised of multiple storylines that follow four generations of the family. While not my favorite book I've read this year it kept my interest (at least most of the time). I especially liked the author's unflinching look of the two world wars. The Undertow is really a history of ordinary lives and the choices people make.
Oct 18, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed the story/stories of the four generations. Slow getting into the book but as each generation came along I became caught up in their 'ups and downs' by the time I got to Billie I definitely had to finish it to find out how she found her happiness. Sometimes very sad and sometimes very happy but most of the story was 'life'.
Nov 20, 2012 rated it did not like it
One of the most boring books I've ever struggled through. There was little character development and the only tension was provided by the character of Sully, who threatened, but never seriously, three generations of the Hastings family. When he showed up yet again in Oxford, I began to wonder just how long Sully was going to live! Don't waste your time or your money,
This book flowed well through the generations. Even though it typically only covered a short period of time for the main characters you understood them well. Great descriptive language. Thought provoking book. Will look for others by this author.
May 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very beautiful story all around. Not so much the characters but their lives are what is most interesting to me. This author has great storytelling skills that will make you keep the book in your hand till your done reading! Thanks for a speedy delivery.
Goodreads winner
May 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I loved the format of this book-- dipping into a family's life every few years made it feel epic, yet not bogged down. The author had a remarkable way of describing simple things, like the "inky black" of a dog's coat. I loved this one.
Jul 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
The writing is beautiful, and I found much of the book gripping, but it just didn't work for me as a novel. It reads more like a series of loosely connected short stories. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with that. Just didn't totally work for me.
Pat Morris
Jun 03, 2012 rated it really liked it
Follows four generations of the Hastings family in England, spanning the years between WWI and present. A capitivating literary journey.
Joanne Marceau
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I had a hard time putting this book down. Excellent!
Dick Gullickson
Nov 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Janie and I listed to this great family generational novel as an audiobook over a period of several months which in retrospect seems appropriate for a story that spanned over 100 years. Jo Baker begins with William, a British WWI sailor, who dies a tragic sailors death and acquires a dubious friend, Sully, who resurfaces repeatedly in the story and ends with Billie, his great granddaughter artist. All of the characters are compelling and the author uses an interesting (and moderately annoying) d ...more
I just didn't love it - the first-person present tense, and the overwhelming depressing atmosphere of the narrative. No one is terribly happy or content, really, and we spend so little time with many people and relationships that it's hard to care one way or another about them. It was fascinating to realize that the same author wrote Longbourn, which I loved; I think this book just didn't delve thoroughly enough into any particular person's life for me to feel like they had any real happiness.
Paul Chiswick
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I really do like Jo Baker's writing style. Descriptively dense, she paints pictures with her narrative. She must have done a lot of research for this book as it spans almost one hundred years. Fashions, products, morals and language are spot on for their respective times. This is my third Jo Baker book . . . it won't be my last!
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a beautiful and moving novel. The book could've used more dialogue at times, but it was incredibly descriptive and well written.
Jun 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a sad book about a family through generations and love.
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Jo Baker is the author of six novels, most recently Longbourn and A Country Road, A Tree. She has also written for BBC Radio 4, and her short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. She lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband, the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville, and their two children.

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