Since we’re talking about a companion piece here, it seems like we should start by quickly discussing our thoughts on Life After Life.
This is where it will be tough for me because I read it so long ago. I liked it but did not love it.
I fell toward the really like side. I loved the structure and wasn’t bothered at all by the cycling back, as I know some people were, but was annoyed by the Hitler/Eva Braun storyline. It just felt like a ploy to catch readers from the beginning.
I had a weird experience with Life After Life. I read it as an e-book and my reader somehow skipped me over an entire section (the one where Ursula is married and lives in Germany). Some passages in later parts of the book had me a bit perplexed due to this, but it was only when I read a review that made reference to the missing section that I realized what had happened, and went back to locate and read that part.
Ironically enough, this now is the main thing I remember about the book as a whole. I liked it while I was reading it, but it didn’t stay with me (this tends to happen to me with e-books, they give me an ephemeral reading experience). I’m probably going to need to reread it—preferably on paper this time!—to make any meaningful comparison to A God in Ruins.
Did you have expectations going into this or loose ends from Life After Life you hoped would be tied up?
I set aside wanting any direct connections, A God in Ruins didn’t grab me all. I knew you all had mentioned the ending was amazing, but the thought of sticking with the book made me want to cry, that’s how bored I was. I think I made it to page 75 or so before I decided to DNF. Such a disappointment, because I found Life After Life to be a thoroughly compelling reading experience from start to finish.
I really loved maybe the last ten pages…but it was a serious struggle for me to get there, too. I ended up writing a post about my expectations because I started to wonder if they were just off. I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed direct connections or even loose ends neatly tied up, but I did want to feel like there was a reason the book was set in the Fox Corner “universe”, if that makes sense. Up until the end, I wasn’t quite sure why the character I was reading about had to be Teddy…it felt like he could have been anyone.
I did have trouble getting into the story at the beginning and wondered if someone who lacked knowledge of the Fox Corner family through the earlier book would even be interested. It wandered about and lacked focus, quite unlike the narrative drive (interrupted, but no less powerful for that) of Life After Life. The slipping back and forth into the past and future, even in the middle of a sentence, was clearly Atkinson’s metafictional “trick” in this book, but it sometimes felt just sloppy and confusing. I became more invested once the wartime sections actually started and the pieces started to fall into place. I thought the time-slip aspect also became less random, unless it was just that I was getting used to it.
It’s true that in a sense Teddy could have been someone else entirely. I think Atkinson set the story in the Fox Corner universe because she herself was already there so strongly in her imagination…once she started thinking of all these alternate lives she came up with another one. But rather than stopping and starting it from Ursula’s point of view she took Teddy’s and followed it through to the end—or rather two possible ends.
I definitely agree on the “slipping” of time, which is such a great way to describe it. While it was successful in some sections, it was much more jarring and distracting in others and didn’t work nearly as well for me as Life After Life.
I feel like the title of this book needs to be discussed because it can go so many ways. When I was halfway through I thought it was about the ruining of Ursula’s choice to let Teddy live and really, for what? But later, the larger picture made it seem more likely that Atkinson was talking about war and the choices of humanity.
In the author notes, Atkinson talks about her meaning and makes it seem as if it was the much larger story of the war and the fact that WWII came so quickly on the heels of WWI—no lessons were learned.
I saw the god in the title as referring to Ursula (in the section where Teddy survives he says, “He gave thanks to whichever god had stepped in to save him.”), but again, this could be due to the expectations I had going in—the thought that we’re meant to look for connections to Life After Life. As for the ruins, I was thinking it referred to the crumbling wall section at the end, basically an examination of lives lived and unlived.
I see that, but also see it going even further in the family in that he had been saved but in looking at his progeny and their lives, weren’t they “ruined”? What was accomplished with their lives? And maybe, given the ending, the fates/God/whatever decided nothing of value would be saved, so Teddy dies and they never exist.
I love a good, bleak book, but I really hate the idea that his life would be wiped because his children and grandchildren weren’t considered good enough. You’re could be right, though…I’m thinking of the scene where he says he would choose Nancy over his baby—she was the one thing he truly cared about.
To go back to the title question, I think it could also refer to the “divine spark” that Teddy and Ursula sense at the concert when they hear Beethoven’s Ninth, the godlike potential latent in human beings (as in the epigraph from Emerson at the beginning). We “ruin” this potential through our aggressive drive for war and destruction, but also through just falling into pettiness and meanness in daily life. The book details the many consequences of that fall, and also how the characters struggle to rise against it.
The unlikable character rears their oh-so-ugly head. VIOLA. She almost doesn’t qualify because she was so one-note: selfish, self-absorbed, willfully stupid. Had children when she didn’t give a shit about having children. She was the main reason I felt Teddy’s life had been wasted. To bring forth that awful human being as your legacy- and she was so terrible to him!
I actually found Viola’s sections to be the highlight of the reading, especially toward the end. Compared to so much of the novel, there was at least a spark of something interesting whenever she came around. While I thought Ursula’s story of the blitz in Life After Life was fascinating, I was bored to tears by most of Teddy’s time in the RAF.
Sorry, I’m still held up on the idea of Teddy’s life not being worthy because of these characters. What about Bertie, then? She had a sweet relationship with Teddy, though it was minimized in the story.
Bertie was one character who came across as resilient, not irremediably warped by the trauma in her past. Maybe because she got to stay with Teddy from fairly early on and have the benefit of his unconditional love.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that the message of the book was that Teddy’s life (his longer life) had been wasted and needed to be wiped out. Even Viola got a measure of redemption in the end, and Sunny, who seemed at one point to be headed for total disaster, was on the way to regeneration.
Agreed, and having read Atkinson’s thoughts on the ending and title, I do perceive it differently than I did when I made my earlier comments.
I loved Bertie—she was kind but not soppy, with that very dry British humor that I love.
I think my biggest problem with this book is the idea of it being a “companion piece”, like I mentioned earlier. It seems to fail for readers who loved Life After Life in that it isn’t really necessary for the characters to be previously established for about 90% of the novel. I got to a point with A God in Ruins where I had to pretend these were different people in order to enjoy what I was reading.
Unfortunately, for readers who didn’t read Life After Life, the major point of the end (and absolute highlight of A God in Ruins) won’t be nearly as powerful. I think this may be a case of trying to have your cake and eat it, too. The great majority of the book is so loosely connected you could almost change a few names and no one would know it had anything to do with Atkinson’s previous work, but the amazing end almost requires knowledge of it? That just doesn’t sit well with me.
Now that I’ve finished A God in Ruins, I don’t agree that the ending necessarily requires knowledge of Life After Life—that is, you don’t have to see Ursula’s propensity for living her life over again as having anything to do with Teddy’s changed destiny. With the references to Prospero’s speech at the end of The Tempest (“baseless fabric,” “stuff that dreams are made of”) and the coming down of the “fifth wall” (possibly a metaphor for the medium of fiction, by analogy with the “fourth wall” of drama), it could be seen simply as Atkinson’s own fictional creation being destroyed by the alternate (though still fictional) reality of Teddy’s death. I think it’s a statement about all the lives that were cut short by the war, and that could have gone in different directions. “All the birds who were never born, all the songs that were never sung and so can only exist in the imagination.”
Note that Teddy’s last flight in A God in Ruins, which takes place in March 1944, is not the same as the one in the final vignette of Life After Life, where he survives and returns from the POW camp. That happened in December 1943 (I’ve tracked down a copy of the book now so I can check these things). This goes with Atkinson’s statement that Teddy’s life in this book is different from the ones described in the earlier book.
So, how do you both feel about recommending this to those who haven’t read Life After Life? I still feel like they’ll miss out on absolutely nothing for the majority of the novel, but won’t get the really beautiful nuance in the final 10 pages. It’s like a lose-lose situation.
And why can’t we just find out why Mrs. Haddock is in the pub at the end of Life After Life?!? *cries*
I’m trying to write my review now and two hours in, I’m going to say ‘no’ I would not recommend this to anyone who had not read Life After Life. Too much context and yet, Atkinson doesn’t necessarily provide any closure to the loose ends in Life After Life. I guess it depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. I’m sorry—I’m waffling on this one!
I’m going to be the dissenter again here. I think if a reader can get past the beginning section and connect to Teddy’s story once it really gets going, it can work as a standalone. It could actually be preferable for those who have trouble with the repeated-lives “gimmick” of Life After Life—although Atkinson is definitely still playing with time and the nature of fiction, in a different way.
Read Our Reviews:
As you can see readers we fell all over the spectrum with this book. How did you feel about it? Did it stand alone or would you recommend Life After Life first? Would you recommend it at all?