One of the reasons I wanted to join a book club was so I could read books I normally wouldn’t pick up or discover on my own. I look forward to when we decide on what book to read for next month, and I jot down on my phone different book suggestions that sound like they have an interesting premise. Also, I actually feel compelled to read whichever book is chosen, whether I initially have slight misgivings about it or not.
How To Be Both by Ali Smith is a book I definitely would not have discovered by myself. I would not have cared for the cover, or all the awards and nominations it has got plastered on the front and back of the book (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 for instance). Sounds like a good book, yes? However, I have never considered my literary tastes to be sophisticated; I usually find critically lauded books boring, the same way I find most Oscar-nominated ‘Motion Picture of the Year’ movies stodgy.
I’m sorry, I suppose I’m just quite pedestrian!
Anyhow, like I mentioned, I feel obliged to read book club books whether I am personally excited by them or not. I thought the plot seemed basic, but How To Be Both’s selling point for me is that it is sounded polarising; apparently, you either love it or be bored with it. Also, they published two versions of the book — the two stories have been interchanged, so you may get a copy where the story starts with a contemporary teenager or the copy where it starts with a Renaissance painter. People’s experiences varied depending on which story came first. Either way, the story still flows, so I thought that was pretty interesting! I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy and find out what my experience would be!
My copy started with George, a teenage pedant who is grappling with grief over her mother’s death three months prior. It was almost the New Year, and she is trying to keep her mother alive by doing things she used to do and remembering things her mother used to love, all while trying to look after her younger brother, as their father has been quite absent after the death by drinking his sorrows away. She sees the school counselor for grief counselling, gets obsessed with the notion that her mother (a journalist and “internet guerrilla interventionalist”) was being followed by a woman claiming to be an artist, and by a painting that her mother loved which they saw together in Ferrara, Italy.
Francescho is the second half of the book in my copy. ‘His’ painting of San Vincenzo Ferreri is what George keeps going back to see, and then we are treated to his story, from her childhood when her mother was still alive, up to her life as Francescho the painter, where she had to bind her chest and pretend to be male in order to be get education and be trained in her craft*. We meet what ends up to be her dearest friend, Barto, who she keeps her secret from.
I reckon I have spoiled enough of this book and I am loathe to say anymore on how Francescho’s story goes. Suffice to say that I enjoyed that story more, and towards the end of the book, when Smith masterfully weaves the story together, I found myself not really caring too much about George, and just wanting to read more about Francescho. Her life was challenging, with a bittersweet flavour to it that tugged at my heart.
It’s hard to imagine how I would perceive this book if I read Francescho’s story first before George. I found George’s story not quite as riveting as Francescho’s: I definitely put the book down a lot more during that half. In contrast, my closest book club friend K, found George’s story more interesting, and her copy started with Francescho! This is what makes the book compelling, and the writer praiseworthy. It is brilliant and inventive storytelling, and if you’re not taken in by the “gimmick”, it is also filled and imparts philosophical reflections. The book is about life, love, art, and death, and these are things that people get passionate about, whether it be positive or negative.
So, how to be both? Alive in death, living life like you’re dead, being limited by your gender by what society dictates, being in love with art, in love with someone…a person, a life well-lived, is too complex to be singular.
“There was a lot more world : cause roads that look set to take you in one direction will sometimes twist back on themselves without ever seeming anything other than straight, … many things get forgiven in the course of a life : nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right.”
– Ali Smith (How To Be Both)
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Let’s have a chat!
Have you read this book? Which “version” of it did you get? How did you find it?
*The real Francesco del Cossa from Ferrara, Italy was born as a boy.