It's hard to put my finger on what makes this novel enjoyable. A contender for the Booker Prize, How to be both is, not surprisingly, a very literary read. The writing style is largely stream of consciousness, and though it is done well, this usually turns me off. The characters are well drawn, but not amazing or unforgettable. The language has its highs and lows. The stories—plural because there are essentially two stories here—are entertaining, but not riveting; they unveil themselves slowly and are largely character driven. And while all of that may sound dry to some readers, I anticipated further reading from the moment I first cracked open the book until I reached its conclusion.
Although both halves were gratifying in their own way, the first half seemed fuller in story. I say “the first half,” but as I've heard the two halves were switched in some copies of the novel, perhaps it is better to say the half which focused on Francesco. I wonder what my experience would've been had I read George's section first, as some readers have. And though I didn't fall madly in love with this novel, I did want to reread Francesco's section after George's, this before I'd even learned many copies were published this way. I'm not one to reread books, especially immediately after finishing one, but I do have a strange impulse to reread this one. Perhaps that urge is what makes How to be both so enjoyable. There's something about the two halves mirroring one another yet being so distinct that invites further study. We're drawn to symmetry, are we not? Like I said, it's difficult to put my finger on it.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the Man Booker winner for 2014, I would not have been disappointed had How to be both claimed the prize. The Narrow Road... was a well-written, tragic tale, a suitable, more accessible winner; How to be both would likely not have reached as many readers with its literary devices, but it surely would have lived on as a worthy victor had it taken home the prize. Regardless of outcome, I look forward to reading more from the very clever Ali Smith.