This is one of those books that you want to tell people about, but you can't quite find a concise way to do so. If you are like me, your pitch goes a little like this:
So there's this girl, and she keeps living her life over and over again. Like, she's born, but she dies in childbirth, and then she's born again... [interjection: reincarnated?] no, the exact same life, but this time the doctor arrives in time to save her, but then she drowns, and then she's born again but hesitates in the water and so is saved but then... and then there's the flu epidemic after World War I and...This is the point where my FH admitted, "I lost you awhile ago and haven't really been paying attention." My mom tried, but was also stuck on the reincarnation point. Or then parallel universes, except they are not parallel since Ursula seems to maintain ghostly remembrances and premonitions relating to past lives, often in ways that help her save herself or a loved one. (And since it's nearly impossible to discuss this novel without reference to Groundhog Day, RIP Harold Ramis.)
But the reincarnation thing is a really awesome point, since a character even explicitly mentions the Buddhist notion that we keep living over and over again until we get it right. And while I've always understood that as living other lives throughout one chronological experience of time, there's no reason it couldn't be living the "same" life again and again.
But if that's the case, what is "getting it right" and is that something that's even possible? Atkinson dances up to this question, but I'd say she engages with it more implicitly than explicitly. She raises far more questions that she answers.
It's funny, reading how Ursula dies again and again mitigates the pain and sorrow of those deaths, but only to a point. You still grieve when awful things happen to her (and they do) and when a life that seems to be going well comes to an end before its time. And you grieve even more for the loved ones who are lost along the way, particularly when they appear to be collateral damage in Ursula's half-conscious attempts to alter her fate. Oh, while some sections (and lives) are short, other scenes are much longer and a huge chunk of the book is comprised of Ursula's varying experiences during World War II. And it should come as no surprise that there are an awful lot of (terrible) ways to die in that war.
So the book is really something. For the beautiful writing and the way that the premise never feels gimmicky first and foremost, but also for the metaphysical questions that it raises. I'll be thinking a lot about what the implications would be if we did indeed live our lives time after time.