ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
American author Flannery O'Connor wrote that short stories need to have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. But what about novels? Reviewer Meg Wolitzer says that in a new book, author Kate Atkinson includes a beginning, a middle, an end, another beginning and several more middles. The new book is "Life After Life."
MEG WOLITZER: I have to admit when I first started "Life After Life," I felt a little disoriented, but I thought maybe it's me. Maybe I'm just dumb. I'm not sure I get it. In the first two pages, we're in 1930s Germany. A woman enters a cafe where Hitler is eating. She raises a gun and shoots. OK, it seemed a little "Twilight Zone" cheesy, but I was game. I turned the page, ready for the consequences, but there were none. Instead, it's 20 years earlier and the action has moved to England.
A woman in labor waits for the doctor to arrive. Dr. Fellowes should have been here, Sylvie moaned. Why isn't he here yet? Your man will be stuck in the snow, I expect, ma'am, says Bridget, the maid. And then, moments later: Oh, ma'am, Bridget cried suddenly, she's all blue, so she is.
The death of a baby, of course, is an unbearable thing, and surely the fallout of that death will come in the next chapter. But no, because in the next chapter, the road is open, and Sylvie, who has just given birth, asks, a girl, Dr. Fellowes? May I see her?
This is arch but serious stuff, and for a while there, it's hard to know how Atkinson wants her readers to feel about it. But keep reading because this novel transforms itself.
The main character is Ursula Todd. She was the baby born in England. She was also the shooter in the German cafe. In a way, she's you, the reader, just another soul who has the misfortune of being born and living and getting caught up in history.
At one point, Ursula lives in prewar Germany. She's friends with Eva Braun. In another, she's working in London on a rescue unit during the Second World War. In yet another, she works in the British Intelligence Service.
In all of these scenarios, Kate Atkinson proves that what makes fiction succeed isn't necessarily the progression of the plot. This book is major and serious but also playful and inventive. She gives the grim details of day-to-day life during the blitz as well as relationships and family.
In real life, people have to make choices about how to live, but Kate Atkinson didn't pick one path for Ursula, and she didn't need to. Instead, she opened her novel outward, letting it breathe in a way that feels remarkably like life.
SIEGEL: That's Meg Wolitzer reviewing Kate Atkinson's new novel "Life After Life." And Wolitzer is coming out with a new novel of her own this month. It's called "The Interestings." You can comment on this review and find more reading recommendations at nprbooks.org.