I’m going to discuss plot points from the first half, so don’t read unless you’re up to page 237!
Welcome to the first post on our Cloud Atlas readalong! Care is hosting the midway check in here so go check that out. I’m just going to chat about some of my thoughts from the first half of the book.
The book is split into different sections, each one in a different time period and with a very different cast of characters. Let’s begin with the first section…
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
We begin in 1850 with Adam Ewing. He’s on a ship at sea and there is the possibility of a brain parasite. Then, just as I was starting to get interested, the chapter stops abruptly, midsentence in fact. (I was reminded of how the book within The Fault in our Stars ended). I’ll admit, I flipped forward in the book and checked the names of the headings to see if Adam’s story was ever picked back up. Thankfully it does.
Honestly, the first 40 pages of the book bored me to tears and I was dreading the rest of it. BUT, then I reached the second section and it just took off. So if you’re picking this one up for the first time, please keep reading past this section, otherwise you’ll never get a real feel for the book.
Letters From Zedelghem
Next, we venture into 1931 with a composer, Robert Frobisher. His section is done in an epistolary style and the letters are all written to his friend Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher gets himself into all kinds of situations when he moves into a chateau in Belgium to help a famed composer continue his work. Frobisher provides us with rich doses of sarcasm and scandal and it was exactly what I needed after the Adam Ewing snooze fest.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
In the third section we get to meet Rufus Sixsmith about 50 years after the letters have been written. He’s managed to get caught up in the midst of a conspiracy. He’s written a report that his company will do anything to keep hidden. A journalist, Luisa Rey, lives in his apartment building is drawn into the fray after an unexpected elevator meeting leads him to offer her an interview.
In this section I was reminded of A Visit from the Goon Squad. We are starting to get a small taste of the scope and interconnectivity of the novel and it has a similar feel to that book. The stories are all somehow connected, though it might not be evident exactly how at first. They also skip around in time, picking up the thread of the story decades later on a different continent.
I really liked Luisa section. We get to meet a sweet boy next door with a rough home life, we catch up with Sixsmith who we only know as the recipient of the letters in the last section, we meet the scientist Isaac Sachs who knows about the controversial report, we see the assassin Bill Smoke and get caught up in the mystery with Luisa. We also get a reference to a sextet written by Frobisher.
There are also a few odd things that pop up in this section and indicate the deeper mystery of the book. Luisa discovers one of Frobisher’s letters that describes his comet-shaped birthmark and realizes she has an identical one in the same spot. She also has some déjà vu moments that led me to believe Mitchell was suggesting she was Frobisher reincarnated. As I read each chapter and started catching references to the previous chapters it felt a bit like the characters were talking about some other book I’d read at a different time. I loved that.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
Moving on, Timothy Cavendish is an editor who has a surprise best seller on his hands when its author cavalierly murderers a literary critic at a party. I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would be for an author to plan the demise of a snooty critic in their book. This part felt a bit like a movie. It had a run in with a mob-like gang and a farcical trip to a retirement home. Cavendish is a cranky man with some hilarious quips about the world around him. For example, this is how he describes some teens he sees on the street…
“A trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie.”
An Orison of Sonmi~451
This section was perhaps the most interesting so far. It’s sometime in the future and a “fabricant” (a creature created to serve humans, possibly a clone?) is being interviewed by a historian of sorts. The fabricants’ name is Sonmi~451 and in this futuristic world, she worked as a content slave before gaining an enlightenment that made her aware of the world around her. She began to pursue knowledge and as she did so, her contentment drained away.
“Fabricants are mirrors held up to purebloods’ consciences; what purebloods see reflected there sickens them. So they blame you for holding up the mirror.”
In this world, the governing force is called Corpocracy and the “purebloods” are in change. They often experiment on the fabricants and this cruel practice is treated as normal,
“No one cared if an xperimental fabricant or two “got dropped” along the path of scientific enlitenment.”
The language in this section is often written phonetically. So flight is spelled flite and explanation becomes xplanation.
It was interesting to see Sonmi~451’s progression through learning. She makes a comment about how strange it is that the social strata in the world used to be “based on dollars and curiously, the quantity of melanin in one’s skin.” Whereas she is judged for being a fabricant even though her looks would allow her to pass as a pureblood. Also, each pureblood must spend a fixed amount of money each month and hoarding is considered an “anti-corpocratic crime” so that stature can never be gained form wealth.
One line that was interesting to me is the following…
“One’s environment is a key to one’s identity.”
How very true this is! It made me think of how deeply our expectations are affected by the world we live in. If someone is raised in a third world country in a life of poverty, they aren’t going to assume they’ll go to college. If they’re raised in the Midwest instead of NYC, they’ll probably think they are supposed to marry and have kids by the age of 30. It’s not that we have to do those things; it’s just that being in that environment is going to impact the way you see the world and your role in it.
I thought this section provided such an interesting view about what “normal” is. It changes with each generation and culture and I wonder what things we are currently doing that will seem horrible to future generations.
Here are a few fantastic quotes from the book so far…
“His words slip like Bambi on ice.”
“Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.”
“Perhaps those deprived of beauty perceive it most instinctively.”
So all in all the book has absolutely hooked me. I think the birthmark thing is particularly interesting and I’m excited to see how that plays out. Even Sonmi~451 had the birthmark! I’ve heard this book described as the literary equivalent of a Russian nestling doll and I think that’s particularly true. Each section is intriguing on its own, but it’s part of a bigger picture and
What do you all think so far about the plot and the unique structure?
What do you love/hate about the book?
Up next we have the section titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” and then we return to each of the previous sections to revisit the characters. I can’t wait to see where this crazy book takes us next!