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Booker prize candidate no doubt, but too gimmicky for my taste. Yes, I was glad to be introduced to the (real-world) early Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. And the twist in the (fictional) story of his identity was beautifully done. But Francesco's story could have been intertwined with that of the present-day teenager Georgia without resort to his return to earth as a ghost & observing her. And her story was curiously inconclusive. And why one half of the book was reproduced a second time almost word for word, I just didn't see the point. A good story is a good story, doesn't need all these gimmicks.
This book was suggested to me by a relative, who recommended Ali Smith as an author and said that if I was going to buy just one book by her, then make it How to be both. Before buying it, I noticed that the reviews on Amazon averaged 3.2 stars, with 33% of people giving it five stars and 25% one star.
I am firmly in the latter category, and like many other people I cannot conceive how it was the winner of the 2014 Costa Novel of the Year Award and won or was shortlisted for other prizes in 2014 and 2015. Either there were few candidates in those years, which is unlikely, or the judges and reviewers had collective bouts of insanity, possibly, or they were perhaps afraid that any criticisms would elicit disapproval from their peers, probably!
reviewers called rich strong and moving : daring inventive down to earth funny profound and deeply moving sagacious playful compelling : but arranging text in patterns across the page is merely annoying and the whole book is poorly written
The book contains two separate, but supposedly related, stories, each of which tries and fails to be intelligent and clever. In the edition I read, the first is set in 2014 and concerns a pedantic 16 year old teenager called George (Georgia), who is grieving the recent death of her mother, a prominent economist and journalist; while the second is allegedly set in the 1460s and describes the life of a young female Italian renaissance artist who had painted a fresco that George and her mother had seen on a visit to Italy. [I say “allegedly” because although the blurb on the back of the book says this, there are no dates in the text and few clues to confirm the period.]
I understand that Ali Smith asked her publishers to print two versions of the book, one with the modern text first and one with it second. If my edition had been printed with the renaissance part first then I would have stopped reading after the first four pages of gibberish, thus saving me many wasted hours, but as I am a completer/finisher I persevered until the end, hoping against hope that I would find something to justify my time. I did find a flash of insightful writing after 300 pages or so, long past the point of no return, but by then I was irritated and frustrated by the author’s stream of consciousness writing, unpunctuated sentences, unnecessary artificial effects (see above), unbelievable characters and the absence of a plot or plot development (in both parts!). It should not be necessary to have to re-read and reconstruct sentences - adding my own punctuation, structure, and deliberately missing words - in an attempt to understand them. Moreover, I had no empathy with, and neither did I care about, any of the characters.
I read and enjoy novels by many modern authors, including those translated from foreign languages, but I thought this was one of the worst books that I have read for a very long time. It was memorable only because it was so bad. Incidentally, my wife read the book first, and she gave up at the end of the first half!
This book will be going straight into the recycling pile!
Someone else here described this book as guff and that just about sums it up. Several people call it clever -I have no idea why. It doesn't have much of a story and certainly has no plot -there is no exploration of motivation and very little character development. The link between the two main characters is tenuous beyond they are both female and both lesbian -but so what? It's a pity - if I were her editor (and I should be!!) I'd suggest she just stick to the story of the painter, which could have been interesting - I guess she could use George as a way of framing the narrative set in Italy. As it is George's story is really boring (ok her mum dies and I'm sorry for that but a grieving teenager doesn't make a story and her character is not rounded and not conflicted and nothing happens to her that is interesting). The painter character raises some interesting questions that never get answered - in fact we never get to know anything about her life beyond that her dad is a wall builder, her mum dies when she's young, she is good with horses, and she paints frescoes well. Oh! and did I mention? she's a lesbian! I have no idea why this book was nominated for so many prizes and won some.I can only think it was a terrible year for new books, or more likely, the judges made the decision, before reading any of the books, to award the prize that year to a book that had two dead mothers and two lesbian daughter in it. I usually read the costa novel winner and always read the man booker prize winner - there's usually some obvious reason why the book is thought a worthy winner - 'how to be both' (ie terrible title and terrible story) is just plain boring -I read it to the last word, looking for a redeeming feature - I wasted my time.
I found this book absolutely delightful, engaging, intriguing, very real, and very readable (the first two or three pages of the part of the book set in the 15th Century give the impression it will be a difficult read, but after that it returns to a normal narrative).
I find it completely incomprehensible why so many reviewers on Amazon have given it negative reviews, and argue that it is "difficult" - unless you can't cope with anything more sophisticated than Dan Brown, I don't see why anybody would have difficulty with the prose style. I found whilst reading the second part of the book (in my case the 15th Century section) that I needed to check things in the modern day story which I'd forgotten, and the reviewer who said that you should re-read the first part (whichever one) after finishing the second part, is probably making a good suggestion, but the way that the two stories intertwine with one another and reference each other is one of the many joys of the book.
Highly recommended, one of my most enjoyable reads in a long time (and I have already bought further copies to give to friends).
I don't often review books or other products on Amazon unless there is something wrong with them I think people should know about. However I felt compelled to share my feelings about this great book as I feel the overall review should give it more stars. I can understand the confusion or irritation of some of the reviews below and would love to know which way round their versions were printed as I think if I had read these stories in the opposite order I would have been confused and missed half of the references in the painters story. I however began in the present day with George's story, which after getting used to the lack of speech marks and the stream of consciousness style of writing I thoroughly enjoyed. I then understood straight away where the painter's story was coming from. I very much enjoyed looking up all the art referenced in both stories, which I think definitely helps the enjoyment of the book and although I might not be heading off to Italy straight away I'll definitely be visiting the National Gallery to see one for myself.
A really interesting written book which sparked lots of discussion at Book Group. It divided opinion because one or two sections were very difficult to read due to non existent punctuation and no indication of who was speaking. I enjoyed it but some in the group failed to finish. If you like your novels easy-reading then avoid this. If you are willing to accept a bit of a challenge then go for it, but don't give up at the beginning of the 16th century portion - keep going. It really does start to make sense!
My second Ali Smith (after being un-expectantly bewitched by Autumn). Comes in two halves and sadly one is far superior - the modern tale of George and the death of her mother (and her blossoming realisation of her sexuality).
The half set in renaissance Italy is harder to love and often quite difficult to follow. I suspect Ms Smith is trying to avoid the tropes of historical fiction by avoiding overly describing the historical setting and keeping it more vague and 'foggy', however the consequence of this is characters are hard to love and situations harder to sympathise with.
However as ever Ms Smith's sentences are spellbinding, and some sections incredibly affective.
Interesting that in the 5 or so years since it's publication the central 'gimmick' of the novel seems less radical than maybe it did before.
This book came recommended to me so I gave it a go. The first half with George is utterly fantastic. George is a unique character and the premise is great. BUT and it's a big one I'm afraid, the second part, featuring the Renaissance artist, is possibly one of the most boring and confused things I've read. As another reader said, both sections felt a little pointless, especially the relationship with George and her friend. Things get interesting and H moves away and that is that. It's such a shame as this book had great potential.
Intriguing idea but may have worked better in book format rather than kindle. I didn't realise it was two stories repeated until I got to section 3 and it all started again. Initially thought my kindle was playing up but checked the reviews and realised it was meant to be that way.
I like her writing so didn't find the style difficult (although I know many of the reviews did) and I enjoyed the two parts but it's not my favourite of hers