Teddy Todd, who first appeared in Kate Atkinson’s thrilling Life After Life (2013), served as a British pilot in World War II. As a young man in the throes of a brutal war, he “didn’t expect to see the alchemy of spring, to see the dull brown earth change to bright green and then pale gold.”
Teddy does survive the war, barely. In A God in Ruins, we follow the rest of his life as brother, husband, father and grandfather through the lovely, effortless story-telling of Atkinson (or, as I think of her whenever I glimpse one of her many near-perfect books on my shelves, She Who Can Do No Wrong).
Teddy wanders around Europe for a bit after the liberation, writing mediocre poetry at cafes on the Riviera. “If only he was an artist—paint seemed less demanding than words. He felt sure that Van Gogh’s sunflowers hadn’t given him as much trouble.”
A responsible British lad at heart, Teddy returns home to marry Nancy, literally the girl next door, and get a series of respectable if non-glamorous jobs. They have a volatile daughter, Viola, who lives with her boyfriend on a commune and gives Teddy and Nancy two grandchildren (their names, of course, are Sunny and Moon).
A God in Ruins is not so much a sequel as a companion to Life After Life, in which Teddy’s sister Ursula lives her life over and over. And Teddy’s story more than stands on its own. Atkinson effortlessly toggles to and from Teddy’s childhood, the war, and his daughter’s and grandchildren’s lives in a story so seamless that one barely notices skipping among decades.
And Teddy . . . it is hard to stop thinking about the steadfast yet slightly poetic Teddy. He apparently has that effect on women. When Viola unceremoniously moves him into a retirement home, the women flock to him: “Of course he was still pretty spry then, and competent, and the women belonged to a generation that could be impressed if a man simply knew how to flick a switch on a kettle. He set quite a few frail hearts a-flutter in Fanning Court.” He is a singular character in an extraordinary story.