Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of "A God in Ruins: A Todd Family Novel" by Kate Atkinson

This second book in the 'Todd Family' saga concentates on Teddy Todd. It works well as a standalone.


"A God in Ruins" revolves around Teddy Todd, who - in a nutshell - grew up in the English countryside, was the apple of his mother's eye, lost his loving father, was close to his sister Ursula, became a bomber pilot in WWII, married his childhood sweetheart, worked as a journalist, had a horrid narcissistic daughter, helped raise his grandchildren, got old, and died.

The book repeatedly pings back and forth in time, covering incidents from Teddy's childhood to his very old age. Overall, we see Teddy as a happy child, growing up and going to college, traveling in Europe, joining the RAF, dropping bombs on Germany. becoming a POW, having a relatively good marriage, dealing with a difficult daughter, encouraging a seemingly inept grandson, taking a nostalgic trip with his grown granddaughter, moving to assisted living, dying in a nursing home.....and lots of things in between.

The book doesn't lend itself to review as a story with a linear plot so I'll just highlight aspects that stood out for me.

Some of the most vivid scenes in the book describe Teddy and his bomber team (navigator, radio operator, bomb aimer, gunners, etc.) on their forays into enemy territory. The relatively slow, lumbering bombers took off from an English airfield, flew in the dark - often for many hours - and were easy targets for both groundfire and enemy fighter planes. Moreover, to Teddy's chagrin (as he found out after the war) the early bombers were often wildly inaccurate, blitzing civilians rather than the intended industrial targets. The author's deft writing brings Teddy's RAF companions to life, and I liked and sympathized with them as they fought and often died.

In the course of the story Teddy has a philosophical discussion with his sister about the morality of bombing Germany to smithereens. Teddy seems to feel no guilt about this, apparently believing that all's fair in war and you do what you have to do. For me, this seems like an understandable attitude but other readers may feel differently.

After the war,Teddy marries his fiancé Nancy and they have a daughter named Viola. Little Viola is a sweet child, very attached to her mom. Sadly, Nancy dies young and Viola blames Teddy, is overwhelmed with grief, and - perhaps because of this (but who knows) - evolves into a selfish, self-absorbed woman, oblivious to the needs of others. Viola is almost a caricature of a 'flower child', taking up a hippie lifestyle, living on communes, becoming a vegetarian, and having one boyfriend (or husband) after another. Viola eventually has a son she calls 'Sunny' and a daughter she calls 'Moon', being too carefree (or lazy) to choose conventional names. Moon, who renames herself 'Bertie', is an insightful child that has Viola's number from the get-go.

In any case, Viola soon abandons her children, leaving them in Teddy's care. In one of the more disturbing sections of the book Viola sends 7-year-old Sunny to live with his bipolar father's family. The poor little tyke's 'grandmama' belongs to the neglectful school of child-rearing. She provides no love or nurturing, very little food, and criticizes Sunny (who she calls Philip) constantly. Grandmama is also determined to send little Sunny to boarding school so he can grow up and continue the family name. Sunny is miserable but gets his own back a bit when - prevented from reaching the bathroom in time by Grandmama - he takes a dump on the living room carpet (ha ha ha).

It's also clear that Viola has little love or time for her father Teddy who - especially when he gets on in years - she regards as a burden and annoyance. Mostly Viola seems to covet Teddy's more valuable possessions.

Viola eventually becomes a successful novelist and makes some half-hearted attempts to reconnect with her children, but it's too little too late. Bertie's attitude toward her mom is especially knowing and sardonic and Sunny takes off for foreign shores.

Teddy himself comes across as a handsome, affable, intelligent man who tries to live a good life and be a good person. As a youth, however, Teddy has a rather flexible moral code. Even though he's engaged to his sweetheart Nancy during WWII, Teddy has no hesitation about romance and sex with other women, the apparent explanation being that pilots had a very short life expectancy. Still, after the war Teddy is a loyal husband and loving grandpa who's largely responsible for the happiness and success his grandchildren eventually achieve.

In lighter parts of the story, Teddy - as a child - is the model for his Aunt Izzy's series of children's books about 'Augustus', a hilariously naughty little boy. The tales of Augustus sprinkled through the book are fun and entertaining. Teddy also has several dogs as the story unfolds, and one sweet pooch serves as the mascot for his bomber team. I got a kick out of these endearing pets.

I expected to really like this book, which has garnered high praise from critics and readers. And I do think the book is well-written with characters that are vivid and believable. Still, I didn't enjoy the book as much as I'd hoped. It felt too long and slow-moving and I found myself wishing it was finished.

Still, I recommend the book to fans of literary fiction.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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