Friday, July 26, 2013

Déjà Vu

I've blogged before about the pleasures and pitfalls of “what if” novels. If the premise is too implausible or clunky I lose interest immediately, but if the author makes a persuasive case, like Tom Perrotta's “The Leftovers” or Michael Chabon's “The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I'm happy to go along for the ride. Kate Atkinson's Life After Life offers a “what if” that is quite a stretch – what if every time main character Ursula Todd dies, some sort of karmic reset button gets hit, and she returns to life. Although she doesn't remember her previous life, a sense of déjà vu causes her to take an alternate path. Confusing? It sounds as if it should be, but once you recognize the rhythm it's surprisingly easy to follow the twisting thread of Ursula's life, from her first cross with death (where she dies at birth) through her childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

This device allows Atkinson to place Ursula in harm's way on both sides in World War II. She sips hot chocolate with Eva Braun, struggles to survive in a bombed out Berlin, but also serves as warden in London during the Blitz. And why didn't this seem like a gimmick? Because I grew more and more fond of Ursula as each new path fleshed out her personality and that of other characters as well. Kate Atkinson's skill kept me following each new narrative with curiosity and affection.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Lost and Found

OK, I guess I'll call this my annual Beach Read. Except this time it was a Listen, not a Read. Certain books work well as audiobooks, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple qualifies. The book consists entirely of a collection of documents – e-mails, letters, texts, even FBI reports. That may sound clunky, but Semple's witty, satiric tone makes the narrative flow smoothly.

Bernadette Fox is a Seattle housewife, mother of clever middle-schooler Bee, married to Microsoft super inventor Elgin Branch. And she is not a happy camper. Those of you who are fond of Seattle and admiring of Microsoft may want to skip this one, as Bernadette eviscerates both with a witty (maybe a little snarky) commentary that made me laugh and wince at the same time. In addition she dismisses her fellow middle school mother as 'gnats', and becomes a virtual hermit in a old mansion so rundown that blackberry vines poke through the floorboards and roof leaks are part of the decor.

When Bee decides to redeem her parents' promise of a reward for straight A's (actually straight S's for Surpasses Excellence – the lowest grade is W for Working Towards Excellence) by demanding a Christmas trip to Antarctica, Bernadette's panic at planning the trip (and leaving the house) leads her to a series of unfortunate decisions, while Elgin's workaholic inattention to his family's difficulties makes things even worse. Disaster ensues and Bernadette disappears.

The book's last sections, where Elgin and Bee search for her, are not as sharp and witty, but they do allow Semple to soften her tone and let the family members sort through their problems in an honest and believable way.