How to Be Both

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How to Be Both
384 pages
In Ali Smith's dazzling new novel, How to Be Both, frescoes painted in the 15th century become the connective tissue between two protagonists born hundreds of years apart. One, the real-life Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, is reimagined by Smith as a girl disguised as a boy, while the other, Georgia (nicknamed George), is a modern-day British teenager. The two vastly different characters turn out to have much in common, starting with the sudden loss of their mothers at a young age. As they struggle with their monumental grief, they choose circuitous paths: Francesco follows her father's directive to dress in male clothing so she can apprentice as an artist, and George watches a porn film over and over, dreaming of rescuing its adolescent star. Finally, they each find solace in art itself, recognizing that "pictures can be both life and death at once and cross the border between the two."

The novela cutting-edge, even radical rumination on time, language, art, loveis split into two parts. In some editions, the book opens from the artist's point of view; in others, the contemporary setting comes first. The variation underscores Smith's desire to illustrate how stories can intersect and overlap like Venn diagrams, wherever or whenever they are set. So the book you purchase will begin either with del Cossa watching George as she stares at the painter's artwork, or with George's reminiscing about her trip to Italy, where her enraptured mother observed that del Cossa's piece was "so warm it's almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I've never thought such a thing in my life."

Scottish writer Ali Smith is one of our most delightfully experimental writers, in the vein of Jeanette Winterson and even Virginia Woolf. By breaking the constraints of a traditional novel, she reinvents it as an exultant testament to creativity. 
— Michele Filgate