I was definitely interested in the book while I was reading it, but I expected something more. The book is structured as six nested stories that span eras from the 19th century to the post-apocalyptic future. Each of the first five stories is interrupted by the next until the book ends by going back to the beginning. The stories were engaging, but shortly after finishing it, not much is really sticking with me, and I’m not sure that the clever connections between the stories are enough to make up for that.
The structure makes me think of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, in which the frame story alternates with chapters that are supposed to be the opening chapters of various books. But in the Calvino book, none of those stories is resolved, so it’s a bit weirder. But I would not be surprised if it influenced this book. I didn’t quite love it, but if you are only going to read one, I would recommend it over this book.
I have a bunch of other weirdly structured books on my list for someday (Stand on Zanzibar — this month or next, I hope — House of Leaves, probably some others I am not thinking of right now) so I am not opposed to this kind of thing, but Cloud Atlas just fell a little short for me.
The different stories are in different genres: two historical stories (both in the 19th century), two different thrillers, and two science fiction stories. I don’t have a favorite, but one of the passages in the book that stuck with me is from Luisa Rey, a character from one of the thriller/mystery sections, talking about the nature of art. She is recalling a conversation with Alfred Hitchcock:
His best works, [Hitchcock] said, are rollercoasters that scare the readers out of their wits but let them off at the end giggling and eager for another ride. I put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well, that’s… the stuff of Buchenwald, dystopia, depression. We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe, but only our toes.
So I really liked bits of this, but it never quite clicked for me. I recently added The Bone Clocks to my to-read list because of its World Fantasy Award win. I might still want to read it, but my introduction to David Mitchell didn’t quite win me over.