Kate Atkinson’s Literary Page-Turner “Life After Life” Will Have You Pondering Parallel Lives

It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is struggling to breathe as the umbilical cord chokes her to death before she can barely experience birth. Darkness falls.

It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born with the help of Dr. Fellowes, who has arrived in time to help mother Sylvie with this tricky birth. And so Ursula’s life begins, until she drowns on a beach trip as a child. Darkness falls.

15790842It’s a snowy night in 1910 and Ursula Todd is born, continuing to relive her life. Each time she instinctually learns to avoid what troubles occurred in a past (or parallel) life, feeling merely like déjà vu. Kate Atkinson’s newest novel Life After Life is a trippy, humorous exploration of life and fate. Ursula’s continuous lives take her through both World Wars, with devastating and intriguing consequences. Atkinson effortlessly captures each time period, with a sharp wit reminiscent of Forster or Waugh.

If the premise sounds too gimmicky, I can assure you it doesn’t read as such. Atkinson makes it easy to get involved in this single life, with crossover themes, characters, moments, that only serve to enrich each new chapter instead of making it feel like a tedious retread of the same events. If Dan Brown’s Inferno is an obvious, thriller page-turner, Life After Life is one of those rare literary page-turners that will keep you up into the wee hours of the night.

I’ve already declared The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards as the best novel of 2013—or at least my favorite book of the year—but Life After Life could easily rival it. Both are entertaining, addicting, witty, incisive, and thought-provoking. I continue to think about the lives of Ursula and their implications, and I’m already eager to reread the novel.

Dan Brown’s “Inferno” Burns with Intrigue and Thrills

Dan Brown has certainly outdone himself this time. After that less-than-stellar Robert Langdon offering, The Lost Symbol, Brown takes his favorite protagonist back to Europe for Inferno. Set mainly in Florence, this new thriller is instantly cinematic and piping with energy. It takes not 10 pages to instantly suck you in.

dbinfernoLangdon awakes in a hospital and is informed by a beautiful woman, Dr. Sienna Brooks, that a bullet grazed his head and he is now suffering from acute amnesia. He is quickly distracted from his surprise upon learning he is in Italy (his last memory from a couple days ago is being at Harvard) by the arrival of spiky-haired assassin Vayentha who shoots up the hospital in pursuit of Robert. Sienna flees with him, leading him to her apartment where they regroup. There he discovers a small cylinder with a biohazard symbol in the lining of his jacket. Opening that cylinder sets him on his newest symbol-driven quest, this time to prevent an ominous Black Plague lurking in the near future.

As can be construed from the title, the framework for the mysteries in this novel are centered around Dante’s Inferno. Once again, Brown seamlessly intertwines mythology and symbolism with classic architecture and settings and modern technology. As the fourth Langdon novel, Inferno may seem poised to be a tiresome retread; but Brown breathes new life into this character, subverting many of his quirks in a fun, winking way. While nothing could ever match the sheer enormity of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno is possibly Brown’s best novel—at least his most captivating. This is one page-turner that you should definitely read this balmy summer, maybe right after you book your flight to Florence.

 

“Revenge Wears Prada” Is a Book Served Lukewarm

revenge-wears-prada_510x770Fans of The Devil Wears Prada have been eagerly anticipating Lauren Weisberger’s follow-up novel (or at least some of them have). Weisberger herself has said that she’s been eager to revisit her beloved characters from her hit debut novel—even going so far as to say that she’s forgotten where her characters end and the film’s characters begin. And so Revenge Wears Prada was conceived. Unfortunately, it seems that the Prada brand is fading.

It’s been almost 10 years since Andy Sachs told Miranda Priestly to “fuck off” in Paris, and Andy’s life hasn’t turned out so bad. She is the editor-in-chief of the high glamour wedding magazine The Plunge with publisher Emily Charlton (yes, that Emily), who also happens to be Andrea’s current BFF. And she is about to marry the handsome, society darling Max Harrison. Yet she is still haunted by that damn ringtone (and rightfully so).

But there are some surprises lurking in Andy’s future. Since Weisberger (and even the novel’s inside flap) have been mum about what happens beyond the first chapter, I’ll refrain from many “spoilers.” Amidst a series of personal surprises, Andy faces a very important business surprise in the form of the devil herself, Miranda. Now the head of Elias-Clarke (and still editor-in-chief of Runway), Miranda is intent on adding The Plunge to Elias-Clarke’s catalog, a thought that gives Andy night tremors. Now Andy must face some life-changing decisions in a whorl of contradictory advice from her friends and family.

And therein lies the biggest problem with Revenge Wears Prada. Andy’s decision regarding Miranda’s acquisition of The Plunge is the backbone of the entire novel. Except that for Andy, it’s an easy answer: no. She never again wants to be working for Miranda, at her every beck and call and whim, losing all creative control of this magazine that she built from the ground up. Unfortunately, Andy is too meek, too people-pleasing to straight-up confront Emily about their conflicting ideas regarding the magazine’s future. Instead, she postpones the decision for over 200 pages, resulting in a very dramatic climax that comes far too late in the game to redeem the story.

While I enjoyed catching up with all the characters—and I especially enjoyed the budding friendship between Andy and Emily—the story itself gets lost in all the mess. Weisberger stalls Andy, inserting throwaway stories about celebrity brides being interviewed for the magazine that resemble her other novels more than the world of Prada. She does attempt to instill some of that Runway glamour into the novel, but those parties and events are weighed down by all of Andy’s insufferable fretting and rehashing of feelings. You want to just scream at her to make a decision (instead of standing there stuck “on the steps of the palace”).

There are certainly some great chapters intermixed with the bad that will appease and entertain fans of Weisberger and/or Prada, but the book certainly doesn’t feel cinematic enough to warrant it’s own filmic adaptation. And the title Revenge appears to be a misnomer as there is no one seeking malicious vengeance (even though I spent the entire novel predicting devious motivations for Miranda’s actions). Revenge Wears Prada is a disappointing sequel and a disappointing addition to Weisberger’s writing.