Let’s Discuss: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Let’s Discuss: Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonLife After Life by Kate Atkinson
Published by Little, Brown on 2013-04-02
Source: Purchased
Pages: 544
Buy from IndieBound


Am I the last person on Earth to read Life After Life? It certainly feels like it. Honestly, I caught my copy late and by the time I was ready to read the hype machine was in full force. I wanted to wait it out so my opinion wouldn’t be skewed, which I think ended up being a wise decision.

As I was marking Life After Life read on Goodreads and gathering thoughts for a review, I noticed a few things about the book’s page. First, a huge number of my Goodreads friends had read the novel, but beyond that…the ratings were all over the board. Of 25 Goodreads friends who read Life After Life, feelings ranged from a few who were unable to finish the book to several with five stars, some calling it the best book of the year. 

Rather than throwing another vague, spoiler-free review onto the pile, I thought it might be interesting to discuss what seem to be some of the major points of divergence in the opinions. I’ll pose a few questions, give my answers and you can feel free to do the same (though I use the Disqus comment system, you do not have to sign in/create an account just to comment – you can participate as a guest by entering your name).

If it just so happens that I’m not the last person to read this book and you haven’t yet read Life After Life, sadly, the post will be filled with spoilers below the cut and in the comments. 


  • One of the biggest complaints I see about Life After Life is that the very nature of the book, regularly starting life over, becomes repetitive. How did you feel about how Atkinson handled Ursula’s repeated life cycles?
  • How did you feel about the inclusion of the Eva Braun/Hitler plotline?
  • Re-living life in an attempt to make it right is a device that has been used in multiple books and movies. Did Atkinson have anything new to offer? Did that make a difference in your reading experience?   
  • What did you take from Atkinson ending the book with Mrs. Haddock in the pub?
  • What else drew you in or turned you off while reading the book?
Feel free to talk about some, none or all of these topics – they were just a few things that came to mind for me! 

My Feelings
  • One of the major reasons I waited so long to start reading Life After Life was the fear that the cyclical lives and long length would make for a daunting read. I was pleasantly surprised by how clearly Atkinson marked Ursula’s births and deaths as well as the fairly smooth transitions she made from birth to adulthood in subsequent lives to avoid a feeling of repetitiveness.
  • Though I really enjoyed the novel, the inclusion of the Eva Braun/Hitler plotline is the one thing holding it at really good instead of great for me. I think what bothered me the most was the use in the opening chapter as catch, though they have little to do with most of the novel. Once settled into the book several hundred pages later, their appearance felt like odd, historical name-dropping rather than the right fit. 
  • I don’t think I was really looking for Atkinson to add a new dimension to this type of book, though I do think she dropped a few hints that other family members might have had Ursula’s same ability. Did anyone else get that sense?
  • Mrs. Haddock in the pub is one thing I’m still totally lost on, so I’m curious what everyone else thinks!
  • Did you know I like big, epic family novels? I do. I should have known from the start this one would suck me in.  
  • I haven’t read this yet. I’ve had it on my TBR pile for awhile, but haven’t gotten to it. I’ll come back after I’ve read it. :)

  • Care

    OK, I’m one of your goodreads FIVE star raters on this one. I LOVED IT. I also didn’t know a darn thing what it was about when I started reading. However it’s also been awhile and I don’t recall the ending in the pub, sorry. But I adored the main character – I loved her spunk and her personality and her grit. Once I figured out the premise, I decided to just let it play out and stop trying to think too much. Mostly, my IRL friends hated the book. Two never finished it and one was so horribly confused that we had an argument when I tried to explain that our protag starts over and over and Friend kept challenging how come her family didn’t realize it and I realized my friend just couldn’t “get it.” Like calculus or new math? I don’t know. But I thought it clever and well done. I cried and I laughed. And I didn’t find it name dropping but getting through all the WW2 lives presented her with the idea of how she just might be able to alter that period by going after Hitler. Yes, one of my top reads for 2013. But apparently not at all for everyone so I rarely recommend.

    • Going in knowing absolutely nothing is really brave on this one! In your case it seems to have been perfect…for your friends…maybe not so much. I thought the repeats were really well done, too – it seems odd that people wouldn’t understand that she was starting life over again.

      In theory, I like the idea that she could have altered the time period by going after Hitler and changing the entire course of the war, I think I was just bothered that it was dangled at the start of the book, dropped and then picked up so much later.

      It really is a hard book to recommend, even though I enjoyed it, because people I share many reading similarities with are all over the board on this one.

  • Jennine G.

    I believe I’m one of your GR friends who gave it a five star rating. I loved it. I also don’t recall the pub ending, which means I might no have thought too much of it. And I agree with you that the Hitler piece seemed weird at the beginning. I actually went back and reread it when Hitler didn’t reappear sooner in the novel. I liked the start overs because you could see where an experience (good or bad) or a different choice changed the direction of her life…and I think we look back and can see the same possibilities in our own lives. So the connection to reality in that way spoke to me. Overall it was just a page turning, enjoyable read for me! (And it did win the Goodreads award for its genre for 2013.)

    • Jennine G.

      Oh, now I remember the end. The woman caught in the snowstorm so she can’t deliver Ursula. A sequel maybe?

      • That’s it! A sequel? Hmmmm. Do you think she would end up delivering Ursula the way she was supposed to? So interesting, but I don’t know how I feel about it!

        • Jennine G.

          I don’t know, but it does leave it all open. I would definitely read a sequel, just because…and I’d want to see what the heck could possibly be a sequel.

    • I was really surprised by how quickly I read it, too…it was very much a page-turner. Especially because I thought I would end up dragging through it.

  • This damn book. I was one of the haters, and while I acknowledge that it was impeccably written, I was SO PEEVED by the ending. Lack of ending? I did like the Hitler plot just fine, and I actually wished the book had stopped with the BIG, full Hitler story. That would’ve given the book some direction, a cyclical nature, a stopping point. But by pushing past it, she made a definite point, but it also pissed me off. Just urrrg. I could say more but there might be ranting.

    • I want you to rant! I was hoping you would come by, because I knew you had some serious issues with the book.

      I TOTALLY agree with you on the Hitler part of the plot – my qualms with it would have been gone if it had been fully fleshed out and the book had actually revolved around Ursula attempting to change history (the way the novel started). Like you said, by pushing past it, it made me wish Atkinson hadn’t included Hitler at all – it seemed like it didn’t fit with the rest of the novel to me.

      • Kelly Massry

        Agree, agree, agree. That’s what makes the book compelling in the first place. You want to see if she can. And then it just gets dropped and only picked up again at the very (ambiguous) end.

  • Lindsey Stefan

    I thought Atkinson did a good job of switching things up just when it started to get old. At the moment I despaired about reading another life that began at birth, she jumps ahead to a childhood or to being a teenager.

    I agree to some extent about the Hitler storyline. It really could have been two different books and honestly, I found the adult storylines dealing with the Blitz to be much more captivating than the Hitler one. This was a really good read for me, although not a perfect one.

    • This was the first time I read a book that described life during the Blitz so in-depth, so maybe that’s why I was frustrated by being pulled from that story…it was definitely one that I was really interested in.

      • Kelly Massry

        Kate Atkinson’s The Secret Keeper also takes place during the London Blitz

  • I’m another one of the lovers. Admittedly, I’m a huge Atkinson fan (CASE HISTORIES is another five-star favorite of mine) but I thought the way she handled the life cycles was brilliant and unique. I could have done without the Hitler piece but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Like Lindsey I loved the Blitz pieces plus I was enthralled by Ursula’s family. Especially her father, for whom I developed a major literary crush.

    About a month after the book published in the US I saw Atkinson read at a Powell’s event here in Portland. She hinted that she’s considering a book based around Ursula’s brother, Teddy. But about eight years ago I interviewed her by phone and at that time she said she’d never write more than three Jackson Brodie books so go figure.

    Like you, I ADORE big fat sagas as long as they’re well-written. Which makes me recommend a trilogy that’s less literary but one of those read-in-bed-with-chocolates items: the Lytton Trilogy from Penny Vincenzi. First book is entitled NO ANGEL.

    Great post, Shannon! and excellent discussion questions. Thanks!

    • This is the first Atkinson I’ve read, but she’s grabbed my attention. And I could use some reading in bed with chocolates, so I’m going to check out your recommendation :)

      I’m really not sure how I feel about these hints of a sequel/off-shoot. Hmm.

      • Please check out CASE HISTORIES by Kate Atkinson. I’d love to hear what you think of it. One of the most clever mysteries I’ve ever read.

  • Stacy

    Checked it out at the library twice. Glanced over the first few pages the first time but other books took precedence. The second time I checked it out, I started it but just didn’t connect with the cyclical nature of the narrative. I have heard wonderful things about this book but I found it monotonous. I thought the cover was striking though.

    • I’ve heard several people say the same thing, so you’re not alone! Though, it does get less repetitive after the first 1/4 of the book or so, as Ursula begins to live out more of her life before cycling back.

  • Meg

    Atkinson is a new author to me, but I’m definitely intrigued by the premise! I thought I was possibly the last person in the world to not have read it . . . but I also really enjoy big, epic family novels (Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman is a recent favorite), and think I’m going to look for this one!

  • Kelly Massry

    I didn’t think Atkinson clearly marked the births and deaths – it started out clear and then got muddled and I couldn’t remember previous details that were important to later lives. I think the war years is where it got the most convoluted and nonsensical for me. After a while I felt like I was reading words but they didn’t mean anything! It was a real struggle to finish, I think I just didn’t get it.

    • It definitely did start to get a little more difficult to follow in the war years, which I think I didn’t mind because I was really interested in reading about the blitz.

  • I got turned off by all of the repetition. . . I was a DNF’er. But I wonder if it’s a book I should give another chance to. Like did I quit too early? Does it get less repetitive? I’m not sure. . . but I only wonder about it since I feel like so many people loved Life After Life.

    • I think it gets less repetitive once you get through Ursula’s childhood, but it seems like there are a few other people that think otherwise. I’m a firm believer that there are far too many books out there to spend time trying to love one that didn’t catch you ;)

  • I didn’t like the repetition – I didn’t finish the book. I did read quite a way into the book, though. :-)

    • Seems like the repetition is a big stickler for most people that didn’t like it. I don’t blame you for not finishing if you couldn’t get into it – that’s quite a bit of book to try to read through if you’re not enjoying.

  • Sheila DeChantal

    I skimmed your post as it turns out you are not the last person to read this but I do so want to! Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Ky @ A Fresh Tomorrow

    I enjoyed getting to know Ursula in each of her “lives” and grew very attached to her and the other characters. I was new to Kate Atkinson, but was very impressed with how she handled each birth and death. The Eva Braun/Hitler plotline didn’t bother me. I can’t think of a way for an author to write about rebirth without including something big to emphasize the possibilities of reincarnation.

  • I was afraid the life starting over and over and over again thing would annoy me, but it was fine. I did feel that the Braun/Hitler plot line was a little weak, now that you mention it. I was so overwhelmed by the portions that took place during the Blitz that really, that was what I stepped away from the book with.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End

    I normally hate big epic family novels, and I wasn’t expecting to like this one! But then I ended up loving it. I was fine with the Eva Braun/Hitler stories, and in fact I really enjoyed the times when Ursula poor thing would get into loops where she kept on dying over and over from very closely related events.

    I hadn’t thought of it on my own, but you’re absolutely right that putting the Hitler story into the first chapter messes with the flow of the book. It makes the repetition of that chapter later seem more final than it should be, I think. I mean that the ending where Teddy lives doesn’t get the weight it deserves, because the Hitler ending seems like it’s the most important one.

  • I loved the way Atkinson (my first read of her by the way) handled this book. I didn’t even think about finding it repetitive. Every time there are so many new details or pov’s that I wanted to keep reading. Now that you mention it: maybe the Hitler plotline was a bit.. farfetched, but I didn’t find it that annoying. I’ve only come to think of it now you mention it, but I can imagine it doesn’t really fit into the rest of the story.

  • Lu

    I know I’m late to this party so forgive me but I have questions about the book. I loved how I started having deja-vu about what I had just read as each chapter progressed.

    Spoilers;What I want to know did anyone else feel the father, Hugh, was gay? It would explain why Sylvie had an affair/ had affairs and was cruel to her husband. Also, Jimmy was gay. Furthermore, when Hugh passed away Ursula says she was surprised at how much the vicar knew about him and it’s mentioned by Izzie that he and Mr.Cole were “great friends”. I, also, wonder if anyone else felt that Sylvie’s preference for Teddy was the result of a love child. I love how such small random encounters spurred Ursula’s fate in a completely different direction like what happened with the Eva/Klara/Hitler plot line and also with Nancy.

    • Hmmm, you know, I didn’t think about the father that way while I was reading, but now that you mention it it totally makes sense. I love the idea of this, it makes me want to go back and read the book more closely!

      • lofthaena

        i did wonder about maurice though, there were several ribbings about his sexuality that put sylvie on edge so maybe hugh explains that

  • Elizabeth and Penny (me) listened to Life After Life in audio and Fenella Woolgar was exceptionally fantastic! She made this book a great one, but…I agree 100% with you Shannon – the Hitler/Eva Braun storyline really took away from my overall great love for it. I thought it too far-fetched. But overall, this was one of the best books we read that year and we’re all anxious to read Atkinson’s continuation with God in Ruins coming out later this year!

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