Life After Life
529 pages (hardcover)
You know what? Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover. Take this book, Life After Life. I should have known I would be disappointed with it as soon as I picked it up. There were so many telltale signs! To name a few:
- The cover art. It’s atrocious. Nothing about the cover art leads me to believe the book would be one I would like.
- There is a blurb on the front that reads, “One of the best novels I’ve read this century.” And it’s by none other than Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl (which, as I mentioned here, I thought was ridiculously over-hyped and downright terrible).
- It’s over 500 pages long (not a cover judgment, I realize, but a prejudgment nonetheless).
But I decided to give it a shot, despite its cover. This was one of those books that everyone talked about last year (tellingly, last year was a weak year for new books). It won awards (winner of the Costa Novel Award; shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction). It’s been incredibly popular among the masses (it was a Goodreads Readers’ Choice Award winner last year and, when I initially put a library hold on it, I was around 125 in the queue).
I know by now that I should listen to my gut. Sadly (but not surprisingly), my prejudgments rang true:
1. The cover art with its cheesy end-to-end rose foretells the wannabe-symbolic, frou-frou, girly writing. Here’s an example:
She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring, the fattening of the buds, the indolent heat of summer, the mold and mushroom of autumn. From within the limited frame of the pram hood she saw it all. To say nothing of the somewhat random embellishments the seasons brought with them—sun, clouds, birds, a stray cricket ball arcing silently overhead, a rainbow once or twice, rain more often than she would have liked.
2. Gillian Flynn is the queen of gimmicky writing. Her tricksy, twist ending is what most people loved about Gone Girl (and what I hated). So, it’s no wonder Flynn liked this book, which is all about the gimmicky writing. The idea is that Ursula Todd, the main character, dies over and over and over (and over and over and over) again and promptly comes back to live her life again (“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Would that be wonderful?”). Ursula does things differently each time, has occasional déjà vu, and avoids her previous deaths and mistakes, sometimes with the help of others, sometimes through conscious choices of her own. At the beginning of the book, her lives, punctuated by the cheesy line “Darkness fell,” are short (she’s but a babe, after all), so the reversions to her day of birth are rapid and frequent (She gets strangled by her umbilical cord; time to start all over again!). You repeat her youth with her, seeing the minor changes that send her on a different path and longer life.
3. Although repetitive and gimmicky, the frequent reversions to her infancy in the beginning of the book have this in their favor: they are quick and short. Those adjectives are certainly preferable to descriptors I would use for the rest of the novel, once Ursula gets older and her lives get looooooonnnnnngggggeeeeeeerrrrrrr. Words like tedious and boring spring immediately to mind, which is not at all surprising for a book this long. Guess what? 529 pages are about 200 pages too long.
Rating: 2/5 😵
On top of it all, this isn’t a particularly uplifting book. Yes, Ursula’s lives tend to get a little better, and she successfully avoids her previous deaths, but, even at their best, things are pretty bleak and depressing. Who wants to read over 500 pages of bleak and depressing? And worse yet, who wants to read over 500 pages of repetitive bleak and depressing?!
The one great thing that happens (more than once, of course) is that Ursula assassinates Hitler (this is not a spoiler, I assure you—this is how the book begins). But, honestly, this tangential storyline comes a little out of left field. There’s a lot of really boring and out-of-place build-up to the assassination in the middle of the book. It just doesn’t work. And it doesn’t really make a lot of sense with the rest of the book.
While the writing is a little flowery for my taste, it certainly isn’t bad. And there’s a fun cast of characters. But, all in all, this book was a failure.
Who should read it: Look, if you have a hankering for this kind of it-happens-again-and-again-and-again-and-again story, just go watch Groundhog Day. Or if you’re interested in how seemingly insignificant choices can change the outcome of your life, watch one of the mediocre movies about the butterfly effect like The Butterfly Effect or Sliding Doors. Or, if you’re looking for something along the lines of: “That’s how it could have happened. But how about this?” just watch the alternate endings of Clue. Regardless, there’s no need to read this book.
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (the first book in the MaddAdam Trilogy; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction).
- This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014).