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Life Class: A Novel Hardcover – January 29, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Set initially in 1914 before the start of WWI, Barker's first novel since 2004's Double Vision tells the story of two students at London's Slade School of Fine Art, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke, along with that of Kit Neville, a promising young painter. Paul begins an affair with Teresa Halliday, a troubled artist's model, and Kit woos Elinor, but both men rush off to the Continent at the outset of hostilities to work with the wounded. The author's unflinching eye for detail and her supple prose create an undeniably powerful narrative, but her skills cannot compensate for a weak plot. What appear to be critical story lines (Paul's affair with Teresa, Kit's painting career) are almost abandoned once Paul and Elinor become lovers. And the book's main theme—war's impact on art and love—pales in comparison with the tragic experiences of those who fight and die in the conflict. Despite riveting passages depicting the waste and horror of WWI, this effort falls short of the standard set by Barker's magisterial Regeneration trilogy, the last of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.
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From Bookmarks Magazine

It’s unsurprising that critics in the U.S. and U.K. compared Life Class to Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, 1990; The Eye in the Door, 1993; and the Booker Prize-winning Ghost Road, 1995) in its thematic exploration of World War I’s immediate impact. Reviewers generally agreed that Life Class does not live up to its predecessors, though it has its redeeming features. While the first half feels slow (and, according to New York Times Book Review, a bit trite), the second half—when Paul comes of age at the Western Front—kicks into high gear as questions about art and war, social class, and modern-day connections come into play. Tellingly, many critics mentioned as their favorite character one with little more than a walk-on—the real-life artist, teacher, and surgeon Henry Tonks, whom they hope to see more of in a sequel.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (January 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385524358
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385524353
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #904,965 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Kerry Walters VINE VOICE on February 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Reading Life Class, a line from Henri Nouwen kept running through my head: "You can get straight A's in school and still flunk life." Or, in loyalty to the title of Pat Barker's wonderful new novel, perhaps this is more appropriate: "You can do well in the schoolroom, but the real proof of the pudding is how well you do in life class."

The lead characters in Barker's novel, whom we meet on the eve of World War I, are all deeply wounded in one way or another: Neville, the bullied boy who grows up to be a bullying man; Teresa, the femme fatale who evokes a destructive passion in her lovers; Elinor, obsessively using her art as a safe harbor from the world; and Paul, the protagonist, so traumatized in his boyhood by the insanity, physical abuse, and suicide of his mother that intimacy is difficult for him.

At the novel's outset, each of these characters is associated with the Slade school of art in London (Teresa is a model, the rest are students). They live in the safe bubble of the academy, and judge themselves and one another according to its relatively untroublesome standards. But all of them, as the novel unfolds, are propelled by the outbreak of the war into the much more challenging (and unforgiving) school of life. The upheaval of their world, the demolition of their comfortably reassuring pre-war conventions, offers them ample opportunity to face their own wounds, recognize just how their personal suffering influences their actions and relationships, and do something to heal. This is the test that they--and all humans--must pass or flunk.

At novel's end, though, only Paul--a failed student in Slade's classrooms--passes. When war erupts, both he and Neville volunteer as medical orderlies and ambulance drivers.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By David W. Straight on February 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is a great work, truly deserving of 5 stars (or more!). I've sent copies to family and friends, and I have copies both at home and in the office for easy rereading. Life Class takes us back to WW I, but sadly the magic of the Regeneration trilogy just isn't there. As with Regeneration, there are scenes in London and of the war (behind the front, though, at first-aid stations). Regeneration did a brilliant job of meshing real characters (Rivers, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, etc) with fictional ones (Billy). Life Class has the real character Tonks (at the Strade), but his part is minor. Owen's work "Anthem for Doomed Youth" seems to exemplify Regeneration--there's a sense of similar foreboding over the trilogy, and we know from history that Owen is indeed doomed, and Sassoon and Graves lived. Life Class doesn't have a similar feeling.

In Regeneration, the threads of Rivers, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Billy continue and intertwine throughout the trilogy. In Life Class, Pat Barker as Atropos has cut lots of threads short--not through death, but by having what seem like important characters disappear from the picture. Things seem shallower--there's not the depth and richness that Regeneration has.

It may be that we've been spoiled by Regeneration: we expect Pat Barker's other novels to rise to that standard. But few WW I novels do rise to that standard--Under Fire, Her Privates We, Paths of Glory, and not many others. I have a nagging feeling that if Pat Barker had not written Regeneration, I might perhaps have given Life Class 4 stars. It's decent, but not great, and 8-10 years from now I might reread it. But I reread Regeneration every couple of years, and I have 3-4 copies of the trilogy books--I worry about wanting to read them and not being able to find them. So Life Class is a decent read, and probably better if you aren't thinking about Regeneration as you read it.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on February 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a story that juxtaposes the anxieties and amusements of both the dilettantes and the talented who attend art school with the demands and savagery experienced by those on the front lines of WWI. Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville are students or former students of the Slade school for fine arts in London. All are talented but Kit is already becoming known in the larger art world. While Elinor produces pleasant and scholarship-winning paintings, Paul seems unable to make the leap to making an artistic statement.

The first half of the book follows this threesome at a somewhat languid pace as they attempt to win favor with each other, including the possibilities of crossing the divide from friends to lovers. This idyllic world of painting and socializing is abruptly interrupted as all of London erupts in patriotic fever as England is forced to come to the rescue of the French to stop the Kaiser. Both Kit and Paul succumb to the pressures of proving manhood by volunteering to lend medical assistance to the war effort in Belgium.

The last half of the book primarily follows Paul in his duties as first an orderly in a field hospital, then as an ambulance driver to the front lines. It is truly a transformative experience for Paul, but the mud, muck, gore, and horror are balanced by the resiliency and humanity of both those hideously mangled and his fellow workers. It is in these highly chaotic and new circumstances that Elinor and Paul explore their feelings for each other. Are the foundations of love and art unaffected by this chaos and mayhem, or are they somehow redefined. Paul and Elinor are forced to grapple with such questions, though not necessarily with equal success.

The novel is interesting and enjoyable, but it doesn't reach out and grab the reader.
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