Book Review | How to Be Both by Ali Smith

: Ali Smith
: Penguin Books
: August 28, 2014
: Historical Fiction
: 372

When I bought How to Be Both, I had zero expectations despite conflicting reviews.  I knew I’d have to make up my own mind on this “genre-bending” new release.   

The narrative is split between two separate but thematically linked stories.  They appear in a different order depending on which edition you have.  My copy begins in the 1400s with the story of an Italian renaissance artist pretending to be a man, and ends with the story of a contemporary teenager coming to terms with her mother’s recent death.  The art – its timelessness and its interpretation –  is the core of both stories.

The “genre-bending” aspect of How to Be Both will divide readers.  Although I enjoyed the contemporary story with its engaging YA protagonist, the historical story had a tough job dragging me out of my comfort zone.  While I appreciate that the narrative felt authentic and well-researched, I find historical fiction really hard to immerse myself in.  Unsurprisingly, the narrative voices of the two stories are totally different: Francesco’s voice is grand, poetic, and humorous, while George’s more intimate voice mirrors the cyclical wanderings of her mind.  Unfortunately, I felt the subplot of George’s mother being spied on distracted from development of emotional connection.

I appreciate Smith’s ambition, but the themes of How to Be Both weren’t emotional enough to resonate with me.  Overall, its vision fell flat for me.  Fans of historical fiction will find this a much more immersive read.  

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