book review: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

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HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith
★★★★☆
Pantheon, 2014

Occasionally infuriating and impenetrable but undoubtedly a masterpiece. This book floored me… but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it. I’m having a particularly hard time arriving at a star rating because Ali Smith is a genius and I want to read everything she’s ever written (this was my first time reading her), but I found this book inspired and frustrating in equal measure.

How to Be Both is comprised of two halves – one of these follows Francescho, a female Renaissance painter in the 1400s who disguises herself as a man to legitimize her art, and the other follows George, a teenage girl living in Cambridge in the present day, recovering from the death of her mother. Half of the editions printed of this book have Francescho’s section first, and the other half start with George’s.

I had Francescho first, in a twist of fate that I believe ultimately worked out in my favor. Starting with Francescho is undoubtedly the more difficult approach to this novel – when ordered this way, Ali Smith is essentially taking your hand and asking you to stumble around in the dark with her, until you reach the end of George’s section and have this stunning, wondrous moment of clarity that makes all of the precursory confusion worth it. Based loosely on the life of the Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa, Francescho’s section is written in experimental, playful, tonally anachronistic prose which is fierce and unapologetic, though undeniably frustrating at times. Sometimes there’s a difference between recognizing the author’s intent (i.e., sacrificing historical authenticity for a modern tone was a very deliberate literary decision that ultimately did serve Smith’s larger goals with this novel) and appreciating the effect: though I knew it wasn’t The Point, I kept wishing the setting of 1400s Italy would come to life in a more convincing way. Every time the words “just saying” came out of the mouth of a Renaissance artist I got jolted out of the story, which in a way feels like quite a pedestrian complaint when Smith’s vision was so much loftier than a simple historical story, but I’m not going to pretend that I was so swept away by the novel’s postmodern structure and philosophical musings that I was happy to eschew all conventions of setting, plot, and character development.

Goerge’s half is the much more traditional of the two, and the section I did ultimately prefer, but having read them both it’s hard to conceive of one without the other. Admittedly as I headed into George’s section, I was not convinced that these two disparate narratives were going to dovetail in a satisfying way. They do, of course, because Ali Smith knows exactly what she’s doing, as obvious thematic parallels begin to emerge (the role of names in shaping our identity, art’s versatility and timelessness, the relationship between perception and reality), but the two narratives ultimately do begin to play off one another in a much more literal way than I had been expecting.

Reading through positive reviews of this book, what I find so wonderful is that the Francescho people and the George people are both convinced that starting with their section is the Correct way to experience this book. That’s how you know the premise isn’t a gimmick, because there’s really no consensus about which works better. Though the order of the two stories obviously does have a huge bearing on the experience you have with it, it’s exciting that two different novels are essentially coexisting inside this one book – the two novels not being George and Francescho, but George-Francescho and Francescho-George. Again, I think starting with Francescho is the more difficult way to approach the novel: if you start with George, you’ll have a better idea of the big picture as you embark on the second half, but having that delightful ‘oh, now I get it’ moment as everything ties together at the end was half the fun for me, so I’m glad I experienced this book the way I did.

Even though I didn’t like this book 100% of the time I did ultimately love it, and I cannot wait to see what else Ali Smith has to offer.

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16 thoughts on “book review: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

    • That’s exactly how I felt too! Especially because after I’d decided to read How to Be Both I kept hearing that it wasn’t a great place to start with Smith. But 🤷🏻‍♀️ I think it worked out fine! I can’t wait to hear what you think of her.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds so weird but so undeniably intriguing! Going through the preview on Goodreads, though, I see that the author is experimenting with literary and narrative styles and I feel like it’s the type of thing I would hate but I’m so curious. I’ve never heard of Ali Smith before but she seems like someone who should at least be on my radar.

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    • I can see you getting into this if you get George first but I feel like if you got Francescho first you’d just be like ‘what the fuck’ since you have a lower tolerance for experimental bullshit and the prose in the first like 10 or so pages of Francescho’s section is like….. gibberish, essentially. But yeah it is a REALLY cool premise and the execution is so well done, even if it seems unwieldy at times, you just kind of have to have faith that Smith knows what she’s doing. But omg she is SO huge on like… literary booktube, it’s like a sin to have never read Ali Smith. And she won the Women’s Prize for How to Be Both and was nominated for the Man Booker like, three or four times? I hadn’t heard of her either until last year but she’s such a huge literary author apparently, especially in the UK.

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  2. I am also so very intrigued with Ali Smith (plus she studied at my alma mater) but I did struggle with Autumn. I might check this one out though because it does sound really cool in a weird way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Autumn or Winter yet but I was hoping to get to those soon. What did you struggle with in Autumn? And I feel that, I’m still determined to find a Jesmyn Ward novel I get on with better than Sing, Unburied, Sing since she teaches at my alma mater and I want to like her solely for that reason.

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  3. Lovely review. I personally didn’t really gel with the book. The writing was beautiful and the idea behind it is definitely genius, but after a year I honestly remember almost nothing about the story or the characters. I never read anything by Ali Smith since then, I don’t really think the books are my style.

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    • Thank you! I definitely see where Smith’s style is a very polarizing thing, which is why I was a bit nervous going into this book because I wanted so desperately to love her and I was afraid I wasn’t going to. I’m happy that I ended up enjoying this and I’m really looking forward to seeing what else she’s done. But yes, characters and story were definitely not at the forefront here! I doubt either of those things will stay with me as much as the writing and overall impression this left me with.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, her writing is definitely not for everyone, and personally not for me. It’s not bad at all, I just find myself forgetting about the entire story only weeks after finishing the book, which is never a good thing.

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