SA Book & Challenge Lovers discussion

Life After Life (Todd Family, #1)
This topic is about Life After Life
All Book Discussions > Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Comments Showing 1-32 of 32 (32 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

Lauren Smith Chrizette and I will be reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson from 8 May 2014. Feel free to read along with us, or leave your comments if you've already read the book :)

However, please use spoiler tags (click on "some html is ok" for instructions) if you wish to discuss spoilers before other participants have gotten to that stage of the book.

Lauren Smith Do you want a schedule Chrizette? I still need to look at the file, but I want to read it in a week so I'm going to try and adjust my reading accordingly.

Chrizette | 906 comments I think a schedule would be great, Lauren. I have the audio book but if we could make the schedule in chapters, I should be able to follow easily.

Lauren Smith I prefer a schedule too. I have an eBook not a print copy so I can't see how long the chapters are, but there are 56 in total, so we can read 8 per day over 7 days. Hopefully that works out to more or less the same amount of text per day. Does that work for you?

Chrizette | 906 comments I was able to start today, Lauren. I am still in the first few chapters but am finding it all very confusing - this might just be me trying to get into the narration. Have you started yet?

Lauren Smith No, my other two books are really lame and I've struggled to finish them, but I've still got three hours before I go to bed, so I should be able to read at least a few chapters and then catch up tomorrow. Check back here in a few hours if you can :)

Lauren Smith OK, I've finished the first 8 chapters. It went really quickly! Which means some of the other days' reading is probably going to be a lot longer.

Anyway, what confused you Chriz? Is it the jumping between times? The first chapter was set in 1930, but the others moved between Ursula's birth and Ursula at age 5. So far she's been born three times. The first time she died immediately, strangled by the umbilical cord. On the second 'attempt', the doctor got to the house in time and cut the cord. She lived till age 5, when she drowned in the ocean. The next time around, a man saved her from drowning.

So far I like it. There's not much happening, but I really like the writing, especially Sylvie's thoughts and observations. And of course the first chapter where a 20-year-old Ursula assassinates Hitler is very intriguing. I'm looking forward to tomorrow's reading.

message 8: by Chrizette (last edited May 09, 2014 10:00AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrizette | 906 comments I am getting more used to the narration now - previously I didn't feel like she was reborn. I noted the first time where she died during her birth and then when she drowned. (I seem to remember that she also fell out of the attic window?).

The way the narration just flowed from one scene into the next scene, it more felt like a story about parallel universes. When she died, it just felt like the other possibility of the situation was followed immediately. I am now further into the story and am now more used to the way the story unfolds. (I guess it doesn't help that you don't see the chapter/paragraph breaks while listening).

Yesterday I did not think that I would enjoy the story but am being drawn into Ursula's life after a few more hours of listening.

I am also enjoying how she is trying to change the circumstances so that history doesn't repeat itself. (view spoiler)

Lauren Smith I was wondering if listening rather than reading was making it harder for you to follow. I've been keeping an eye on the dates, and sometimes go back to compare little details.

Yes, Ursula falls out of the window in one of today's 8 chapters. I read those, and then another 3, since they were very short.

I hate Maurice,and it was no surprise that he was responsible for one of Ursula's deaths. I'm glad he doesn't have a big role. I kind of like that Sylvie doesn't like him either. She's a great character in general - very well-written with lots of different facets. I just read one of the BoMs, a steampunk novel in the same time period. The female protagonist in there is supposed to be a strong woman who defies the sexism of her culture, but she's so boring and silly compared to Sylvie even though Sylvie is more traditional.

I also like how Ursula is trying to save herself from the flu. Bloody Bridget! Why must she go to the Armistice celebrations?! And Ursula had to resort to pushing her down the stairs, lol. I thought her little note signed "Mrs Todd" was funny too, although it's also so desperate. The scene where she finds Teddy in the room with Bridget's corpse was quite sad. I'm keen to see how she finally solves the problem.

Bridget isn't Ursula's sister though. She's the Irish nanny/maid.

Chrizette | 906 comments I was thinking that Bridget might not be a sister but could not remember how she fit in the family. At one stage everyone was brother/sister to me except for Mrs Todd and Sylvie :)

Yes, I loved the scenes where Ursula is trying to prevent Bridget from leaving. Unfortunately trying to push Bridget down the stairs (very cute) comes back to bite her. Although that scene opens a whole other possibility for her life to take.

It is amazing how the author thought up this whole story. She must have kept a chart to keep track of all the possibilities and side tracks that keeps on happening.

I really enjoy Ursula's character - she is a very strong and feisty young girl (and young woman). Also very perceptive about how she is different from everyone else - even at the age of eight.

message 11: by Lauren (last edited May 10, 2014 01:33AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lauren Smith Lol, Sylvie is Mrs Todd :) Do you mean Mrs Glover?

One interesting thing about Ursula's attempt to change her fate is that there's some kind of force driving her to do certain things that she doesn't necessarily want to do. In other circumstance a child who pushed someone down the stairs would be quite scary. She might also avoid doing something good if it means saving her own life. I wonder what it'll mean for her in the future.

And now it seems that she's not only able to save her own life but to do other things better, like putting her baby rabbit indoors instead of leaving it outside where it got eaten by a fox. I can't wait to see how much more complex the little influences get.

I like Ursula too, and she can be so cute and funny :)

message 12: by Chrizette (last edited May 10, 2014 01:30AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrizette | 906 comments I have always said I am bad with names, but this is ridiculous -lol

From now on, I will be saying: the mother . . . the housekeeper, etc :)

Chrizette | 906 comments I think I am a little further into the book than you, it is difficult to guess as there are no chapter numbers mentioned in the audio . . . according to the time, I guess I am just about halfway. I can't wait to hear what you think about the next bit (I will just say "the consequences of Ursula pushing Bridget down the stairs").

Lauren Smith Lol, labels work too :)

There are no chapter numbers in my book either. What I'm calling chapters are just the different time periods - July 1914, November 1918, etc.

I have to go to a kid's birthday thing later, but I'll try and read the rest of today's chapters before I go.

Chrizette | 906 comments No rush, I don't think I will get much listening time today and tomorrow. Enjoy the birthday party :)

Lauren Smith Well I also want to read today because I don't want to spend too many days on this book, as I've got seven books on my reading list for this month.

Lol, I'm actually not looking forward to the party that much. I'm not too fond of children.

message 17: by Lauren (last edited May 11, 2014 05:36AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lauren Smith I finished yesterday and today's reading, which stops at the start of A Lovely Day Tomorrow. My Kindle says I'm at 42%. So almost halfway, unless there's a long note at the end or something.

I was a bit confused by that 1947 chapter. Is that what happens if Ursula doesn't see a psychiatrist after pushing Bridget down the stairs? And does the addition of a cat for Mrs Glover somehow change things so that Sylvie decides to send Ursula to the psychiatrist in the next reincarnation?

I as saddened by the fact that Ursula's actions turned her into a bit of a pariah and she got sent to a psychiatrist, but on the other hand the psychiatrist has actually guessed at what's happening to her and given her something to think about.

After that though... wow, the book took such a dark turn. Rape, an illegal abortion, being rejected by her mother, alcoholism, loneliness, an abusive marriage. The rape scene was particularly horrible, and it was almost as bad when it was echoed in Ursula's marriage. And there's the rape and death of Nancy Shawcross. I was so relieved when Derek killed Ursula, even though it was a horrible thing, because at least it could all be avoided. And shame, that's what Ursula wanted too:
"The look on his face. That look. She was asking to be killed, but wasn't that easier than doing it herself? She didn't care any more, there was no fight in her.

And Sylvie was so cruel! Rejecting Ursula for being raped, suggesting that Mrs Shawcross got what she deserved for letting her daughters "run wild" etc. There's a point where Hugh asks "where is your heart?" and I was wondering the same. Do you think she was always like this? Or did something happen to her? Was she in love with George Glover (Mrs Glover's son, who had the Shire horses and was gassed in the war)? Did she lose someone in the war we don't know about? I was wondering for a while if she was having an affair, because there were lots of little hints about her relationship with Hugh, her attraction to George, suggestions that some of the children might not be Hugh's, etc. And then of course it's confirmed when Ursula sees her coming out of a hotel in London with another man. So perhaps there's something else going on in her life that changed her so much? Either way, she's still a great character and I want to know a bit more about her changes, but I'm really starting to dislike her.

Chrizette | 906 comments I must admit that I have not bonded with "mother Sylvie". Even in the earlier chapters, I always felt that she was holding back her love and acceptance. I don't know if I am just too sensitive but I keep picking up the little pin pricks - she sometimes can be very cruel with sentences that she tries to conceal as caring. When Ursula thinks "did she ever really love me" in her "dark life as an abused wife", I felt she was very near to the mark. And when we see "mother Sylvie's" ugly side (when she rejected Ursula after the rape, etc.) it felt to me that her true colours were showing. I am also wondering if we are going to see some of "mother Sylvie's" past (maybe before her marriage)to explain her actions. All in all, she is not a very sympathetic character to me - maybe we might see why that is in future chapters.

I never even considered your question that maybe "mother Sylvie" was having an affair. When Ursula saw her in town after her appointment with the psychiatrist, I felt that this was going to come back in another lifetime. That maybe we were only getting a glimpse. I am also associating (maybe incorrectly) that event with the woman that Ursula meets when they are standing in line waiting for water from the only running tap during the war. That scene was never really explained.

This story is going this way and that way . . . and I must admit that I have not found an "ideal" life for Ursula yet. But I am enjoying the journey.

Lauren Smith I interpreted Sylvie's behaviour as being realistic verging on cynical, a bit disillusioned. Marriage and sex (at least with Hugh) doesn't turn out to be all that amazing, having kids can be tiresome, she doesn't like Maurice (although no one does, so I can't blame her), etc. I kind of liked her for that - that she faced up to life's disappointments, and just got on with it. But now I'm wondering if you're right, if this was just the more benign side of an uncaring personality that emerges more clearly later.

I'm wondering if we'll come back to Sylvie's affair or if it's just something in the background that can't get filled in because we see everything from Ursula's POV. What also made me curious though was the fact that Sylvie committed suicide in one of Ursula's lives. It's stated that it's obvious to the family why she did that, but it's not made clear to the reader.

I'm wondering what the ideal life for Ursula will be. Will it be to have some kind of effect on history, like assassinating Hitler as she did in the first chapter? In which case, what exactly is fate trying to achieve? Will it slot into existing history, so that we find Ursula having some significant influence that didn't make it into the history books?

I read further but without taking much notice of the schedule. I teared up a bit at the end of The Land of Begin Again: April 1945, when Ursula kills her daughter and commits suicide, after putting her daughter to sleep with stories about Fox Corner and her family. The poetry she quotes felt so apt and sad in context:
I run to death, and death meets me as fast.
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.

On another note, it seems that Ursula's marriages are failures in comparison with her affairs. She should just "live in sin" :)

Chrizette | 906 comments I am feeling more and more sorry for Ursula. It looks like each choice she makes in respect of partners in every life, just turns out badly for her. I am about an hour and a half from the end and I am becoming desperate for her to find real love or at least peace in herself. I am not sure if it is in her character or if it is just the circumstances of being a young person during the war but her life is so bleak all the time.

In her life in Germany when she was "close" to Eva (and therefor I assume Hitler), I wondered if we would experience more about the assassination that was early in the story. I hope we are going to see a bit more of that story. I know you are also waiting for that angle to come.

I just have to throw this into the conversation even if it is such a stretch . . .
In that same life: For a moment when she mentioned the glint in Hitler's eye when he saw her daughter, I was thinking about history where it was mentioned that Hitler had a "relationship" with an under-aged (was it cousin) family member who later committed suicide. I know it might be a stretch because of the age and timeline, but I love all the more obscure facts of the Second World War and my mind just grabbed that one sentence. I just assumed if Hitler had that one indiscretion, maybe something more might happen. I was so hoping to see a bit more than that one sentence.

Beneath I am going to put one option in spoilers in case you are not further than when she is a citizen of Germany and commits suicide with her daughter.

(view spoiler)

message 21: by Lauren (last edited May 13, 2014 10:23AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lauren Smith Read up to the end of A Long Hard War: May 1941

In terms of love, I felt sorry for Ursula when she married Derek and Jurgen, but with Crighton, Ralph and Fred it seemed casually pleasant and normal (although perhaps a bit racy for the times?). I'm not expecting her to find any great love, although she seemed to have a relatively nice thing going when she moved in with Crighton. It was quite sad when Fred died, but I didn't expect him to be her ideal partner either. I was glad she could find some comfort with him in the middle of the war though, and the same goes for her relationships with Crighton and Ralph. It's the horrors of war that really make her life bleak for me, rather than the lack of true love. If anything her affairs are like little bits of light in the darkness.

With the German stuff, I thought we might learn something about Ursula being a spy. Besides the overt possibility in chapter one, it seemed to be suggested quite often. She spoke about "after Munich" (before we learned that it was a tour of Europe), she speaks German, she talks about being good at keeping secrets like Sylvie, and I think someone (Crighton?) suggests that she would make a good spy. But hey, the book isn't over yet.

Hitler's relationship with an underaged family member adds an interesting twist. Frieda was too young, as you say, but it might have been a hint at Hitler's perverted nature. I'm glad nothing more happened though - there's enough horror as it is! It's so sad when Frieda says "I've had enough, Mummy," shortly before Ursula kills them both.

At the end of that chapter she also mentions that it's the first time she chooses life over death and because of that "she knew something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed."

Do you notice any particular change after that? She does seem more practical about violence and death. Not uncaring, by any means, but hardened enough to face all those deaths in London and deal with the rescue and clean-up rather than falling apart. Not that she was ever the kind of person to go to pieces, but maybe she could not have done the rescue work in earlier lives? Not sure though.

Anyway, 8 more chapters left for tomorrow. I'm keen to know what's going to happen but also a little sad to leave this book behind. It's been a good story.

message 22: by Chrizette (last edited May 13, 2014 11:00AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrizette | 906 comments I have been changing my view about characters from the beginning (and recently about Ursula). On one or two occasions, I have had to force myself to keep on listening but overall I am leaning towards thinking that it is a good book. It is certainly different from books I have read recently.
Even saying that, I still think it is a difficult book to read and I can now understand why the reviews on Goodreads have such different ratings. Can't wait to read some of their opinions after we finish the book. It seems that you either love it or think it is utter crap. I know you are going to love it :)

All in all, I am looking forward to the conclusion tomorrow so that we can at last know Ursula's fate.

edit: I forgot to mention. I totally agree with your statement that each life prepares her a little for the difficulties of the next life. Reading about her crawling into holes after the bombings to look for survivors and then finding the little baby (in a previous life her neighbour's baby). . . I can't imagine having to do that. If nothing else, she is a very strong and courageous woman in this life.

Lauren Smith On the one hand I find it fairly easy to read, in the sense that it's easy to follow, but on the other I find it quite difficult to track the various influences on her life. Of course it got increasingly complicated as she got older, and now I'm struggling to keep track of how she ended up in a particular spot or why a different decision or event changed her life. I keep going back to check on details and found a few clues. Like at one point she and her mother are enjoying a warm, lazy afternoon in the garden. In the first version, Ursula is reading a French book, and I think that leads her to either die in the Argyll Road house or escape the Argyll house collapse by rescuing the dog, only to die when a wall collapses. Then we go back to the garden scene but this time Ursula is reading a German book - The Marquise of O— and Other Stories - and she goes to Germany and marries Jurgen. I've actually read the title story of that collection, and although I've forgotten most of it, I remember that it's about a woman - the titular Marquise - who is almost raped by soldiers during a war. She's saved by a Count, but faints. Later she's surprised to find herself pregnant because, as it turns out, the Count raped her while she as unconscious, which she never realised. Eventually she marries him.

The story draws some parallels with Ursula's life - being raped, not realising she's pregnant at first, the war, being married to/impregnated by a man who betrayed her (Howie of course, and Jurgen, who took her passport away). There are probably more, but I'd have to re-read the story or go through the Wikipedia summary and I'm not in the mood.

Anyway, it seems like reading the German book among other things is what encourages her to stay in Germany, because in other lives it's just a visit. There must be loads of other little things. It'd make for a good re-read, I'm sure, once you know how everything turns out and can pay closer attention to the various influences.

I think I will love this book, but there are still another 8 chapters and the ending might be disappointing.

message 24: by Chrizette (last edited May 13, 2014 11:46AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Chrizette | 906 comments I did not pick up the difference in the books she read (as you mentioned above). What an interesting way to look at it! Thank you for sharing that with me - makes you think . . .

I think that is a problem if you listen to an audio version - it is not as easy to just look up something that already happened.

I think I will join you in Wikipedia after we finish the book. I am sure I missed some of those comparisons as we read.

Lauren Smith My pleasure, that's what buddy reads are for :) I think I only picked up the difference after skimming through the details about three times. Luckily my Kindle file allows me to skip quickly to the beginning of each chapter, so it was easy to compare what she was reading. There are also minor differences in the conversation between Ursula and Sylvie, but I can't remember how that changes anything.

Oh, I actually meant the Wikipedia entry about The Marquise of O, which is very detailed. The Wikipedia entry for Life After Life is quite short, unfortunately. But maybe someone else has made done an analysis or made some kind of chart.

message 26: by Lauren (last edited May 14, 2014 10:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lauren Smith Finished

I do love it, but the ending was a bit disappointing too. I just don't get it.

The first chapter where Ursula assassinates Hitler suggests that all this reincarnation has a purpose - that fate is trying to steer Ursula in a particular direction and once she achieves some unknown goal, she will stop coming back. Like maybe she's supposed to stop Hitler before he can start the war. But then we get another chapter where she assassinates Hitler, and it's at least the second time she does this because the details are different (it's snowing not raining, Hitler is in a bad mood, different cake is eaten). Also, after she kills him (again) she is reincarnated anyway, so obviously that wasn't the point. In the next life Teddy lives, but we still go back to 1910 for the final chapter.

So what's going on here? Is it the novel saying that, ultimately, Ursula can't change history, she can only try and live a better life in it? What defines that better life? What does it mean when Dr Kellet asks if she's had enough? Will she ever stop reincarnating? Because with all the tiny bits of memory she retains, reincarnation will eventually be like hell. Maybe she can improve her life, but she'll have to keep living through a terrible war and the flashes of memory could drive her mad. It'll reach a point where she's not sure what happened in her current life. She'll keep getting flashbacks of the war, even if it hasn't happened yet. She'll have PTSD from birth.

Chrizette | 906 comments I was also disappointed by the ending. I was prepared to announce that I really enjoyed the book, but the ending was really a let down.

Before I mention anything else, did you notice when Ursula is again born with the cord around her neck and the doctor was not able to be there at the end of the book. Sylvie searches in her bedside table for surgical scissors and her words are (paraphrased)"you have to be prepared". Did you not also get a funny feeling that maybe she is in the same predicament as Ursula? Maybe she is also stuck reliving her life?

Lauren Smith That moment struck me too. I considered that she might be in the same predicament, but I suppose they all are, because if Ursula keeps reliving her life, they must be too. The difference is that they don't retain memories of the past like she does, and this whole thing isn't focused on them.

I remember in one of the lives (perhaps the second one), Sylvie decides to get a pair of surgical scissors after seeing Dr Fellowes cut the cord around Ursula's neck. Now fate intervenes so that she already has the scissors when Ursula is born. And then "Practice makes perfect" - how many times has she cut Ursula's cord herself? It suggests that there were many more lives that we didn't see.

Chrizette | 906 comments I agree with you only partly. If you do not remember a previous life, this life is the only experience you have to work with. This is for all practical purposes your only life. The rest of the family therefor don't "relive" their lives in my mind. (does that make any sense at all?)

If Sylvie (in the time before this would have been common knowledge) prepares for the future by having the surgical scissors, she must have at least a little memory of what happened before. Maybe I am just taking a huge leap, but I would like to think that these little memories might be the reason for some of the times when she acts so badly towards Ursula. Maybe she experienced some bad timelines as well that is not mentioned because she is not the focus of the book.

Lauren Smith Oh ok, I see your point. I think the book itself might be a bit confused as to how this works though. To say that "practice makes perfect" suggests that Sylvie has had lots of practice cutting the umbilical cord. But on the other hand, no one seems to retain any memories. Ursula is the only one for whom practice can make perfect in this sense.

I think Sylvie could have had the scissors already simply because fate (or whatever) sometimes intervenes. It's not always Ursula who changes things. Sometimes it's just circumstance, like Tim Winton being on the beach to save her from drowning, or Crighton choosing whether or not to break up with her.

On the other hand you make a good point - Sylvie's memories might explain some of her unkind behaviour. The only explanation we have at the moment is that she never got over the loss of her pony Tiffin and she resents her parents for it.

I need to go through my notes and try to untangle this all. It makes for a compelling story, but the reasoning behind it is a bit wonky. Maybe it's because Atkinson doesn't normally write speculative fiction and hasn't handled the mechanisms of it very well? I love the focus on character and history, but I would like for the understanding of reincarnation to be more rigorous. And for the ending to be either more intriguing, or more conclusive.

Chrizette | 906 comments Reading all our comments and the especially the last few, I am thinking that maybe the book was not that good . . .

Lauren Smith For me the pleasures outweigh the flaws. I really enjoyed reading most of it. At times the pacing was a bit weak, but I'm really impressed at how compelling Atkinson managed to make this story. At first it's very domestic, and we keep reading about the same events. The war is more dramatic, but even then the focus is on the life of this one woman who usually doesn't live the most thrilling life. I mean, working on the rescue crews is serious business, but it's also dreary and she doesn't have the power to make massive social changes. If you described this story to me as a family saga and WW2 novel told from Ursula's perspective, I would probably never read it because it sounds quite dull to me. I'm not a fan of historical fiction.

But Atkinson writes it so wonderfully that I love reading all the tiny details of life at Fox Corner, even when I'm reading them for the third time. When the pacing picked up with the war, I actually missed the more domestic narrative, although the war was compelling in its own way.

And I found the characters so engaging. Sylvie becomes unexpectedly cruel and I'd like to know more about that, but otherwise she's well-written. Izzie is really great, first she seems like a silly girl, and she can be really self-absorbed, but she becomes quite street-smart and independent too. I loathe Maurice, but I love Teddy. Hugh is very sweet. I like how practical Pamela is. And of course it's interesting to see the different kinds of people that Ursula turns out to be.

I think there may be serious problems with the ending, but ultimately the way the story made me feel trumps the more objective issues.

back to top