You may not think you know who Bruce Eric Kaplan is, but once you see the illustrations and know that he goes by his initials (and if you ever read The New Yorker just for the comics), you’ll recognize him.
The book is a series of tiny snippets of Kaplan’s childhood, a sort of prose version of his trademark single-panel cartoons. The story is loosely arranged, hopping around chronologically so that I was never quite sure how old he was supposed to be at any given moment, but that was part of the book’s charm. It was like having someone tell you about his life in snippets of conversation, so that maybe you don’t know the whole life story in perfect order, but you have a feel for what made him who he is.
Anyway, if you like cartoons, if you like memoirs, if you like stories about people who grew up Generation X in America, you might like it. I think the moments of recognition were the best reason that I enjoyed the book – often, Kaplan starts or ends a passage with “I always thought” or “I wondered why” or “I felt like”… and I realized reading those passages that I’d thought/wondered/felt the exact same thing. The best parts are when he finishes one of those passage with “…and I still do.”
I heard that Kate Atkinson was going to write a “companion novel” to Life After Life, and I got excited. Then I forgot about it for a while…until I found out that librarians can sign up for Advance Reader Copies. So I did. And I read it. And now I am slightly sorry that I have to wait until it comes out (May 5 – place your holds and Amazon preorders now, people!) to tell patrons about it. Anyway. If you read Life After Life, the main character in this book is Ursula’s brother, Teddy. Unlike Life After Life, which allows us to see hundreds of different possible outcomes for Ursula, A God In Ruins has only one plotline for Teddy – his life unrolls, told from his own memories or flashbacks from his daughter and grandchildren’s perspectives. Ursula is only mentioned in passing – she dies in her fifties in Teddy’s version of the story, and Teddy often regrets her absence from his life (he lives on into his nineties). There is a minimum of the usual Kate Atkinson weirdness where you can’t tell what is real and what isn’t, so those who don’t like her fanciful treatment of reality will like it just fine…until the end, where reality takes a raincheck and ha ha, fooled you, it really is a Kate Atkison book after all. But I won’t tell you about that and spoil the surprise. The best part about this book is the characters. We get to see all of the family members we met in Life After Life through Teddy’s lens rather than Ursula’s, and the differences are interesting. (For instance, it’s very apparent that the siblings’ experience of their mother differs greatly. You would think that Teddy, being his mother’s favorite, would love her more than Ursula does – but you’d be wrong.) Even more interesting are Teddy’s daughter, Viola, and her children, Sunny and Bertie. (Teddy of course marries the girl next door, Nancy, who Ursula saved from a murderer in one of her lives.) Viola is a difficult character. I wanted to feel sorry for her, and sympathize with her sorrows, but couldn’t help wanting to slap her silly for her self-obsessed insensitivity. Viola is truly a rotten person. By contrast, Bertie is almost too good to be true, and her brother Sunny will break your heart. By the end of the book you love Teddy’s grandchildren as much as he does.
If you like historical fiction about World War II (from the British perspective), or psychological fiction about parents and children and the ways our families make us who we are, or if you liked Life after Life, you might like this book. I know I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters and this setting again.