How to Be Both, by the British writer Ali Smith, tells two interconnected stories. The first is about Georgina, known as George, a 1960s teenager outside of London grieving the death of her mother and taking her first tentative steps toward love. The other is the story of the 15th-century Italian painter Francesco del Cossa, a historical figure responsible for the remarkable frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy—and about whom very little else is known.
The twist here—and that word is used purposefully—is that, depending on the copy the reader picks up, either George’s or Francesco’s story could be presented first. Though reading one before the other obviously doesn’t change the outcome, it shows that the stories both precede and follow each other, like fibers in a strand of yarn.
The plot and the structure of How to Be Both play with many ideas and symbols, including androgyny, allegory and memory. Though it may sound intimidating, Smith makes the novel accessible and even fun. George is funny and earthy; a credible, albeit very articulate, teen. Francesco’s story is a picaresque masterpiece complete with brothels and a delicious rivalry. But Smith’s talent shines brightest in her tender depiction of the emotions that, like the underpaintings in a fresco, remain hidden but have a powerful impact.