Despite the variety of storylines, there is one aspect of Ursula’s life that remains nearly unchanged throughout the book: Ursula’s family. Ursula’s relationships with her parents and her siblings are formative in each of her lives, yet their love is not always presented as unconditional. As Ursula experiences various traumas and the family faces collective challenges, different members of Ursula’s family react in vastly different ways. These different dynamics imply that the most important part of being a family is the ability to receive love and support in times of crisis.
When Ursula receives support from different members of her family—particularly her father Hugh, her aunt Izzie, and her brother Teddy—their love allows her to survive several traumatic experiences. Hugh is a kind father figure, constantly supporting his five children and fighting in World War I when called to arms. But perhaps his greatest kindness is in his reaction to Ursula’s abortion, which she receives after being raped and getting pregnant. Instead of reacting harshly, as Sylvie does, he brings her to the hospital when she becomes sick afterwards, and stays with her for days and holds her hand until she wakes up, saving her from what she describes as “the black bat” (death). Ursula’s Aunt Izzie also helps to support her. In several of Ursula’s lives, Izzie’s apartment becomes a place of refuge—when she gets pregnant, when she is abused by her husband Derek, and when she needs a place to stay during World War II after her own apartment is bombed. Although Izzie’s help is sometimes misguided, she never judges Ursula in the way that Sylvie does and provides her with as much support as she can. Teddy serves as another support system for Ursula, particularly when she is abused by her husband. In their youth, Ursula describes Teddy as loyal and affectionate, and he lives up to this description when Derek seeks Ursula out at Izzie’s apartment and finds Teddy there, too. Derek begins to beat Ursula, thinking that she is sleeping with Teddy, and Teddy fights him in order to save her. Though his attempt to save her ultimately fails and Ursula dies from her injuries, this loyalty underscores many of Teddy’s actions in Ursula’s other lives, as he gives her vital care and support when she faces other challenges during the war.
When Ursula does not receive support from her family, however, she is often traumatized to the point of depression and in some instances, they directly or indirectly cause her death. Ursula’s older brother, Maurice, constantly mistreats her and her older sister Pamela. In one timeline, he buries her under a pile of leaves when she is a baby; in another, he throws a doll of hers off of the roof and she chases after it, causing her to fall to her death. In later timelines, Maurice is completely indifferent to her and he tells her quite dispassionately that Teddy has died, almost “bemused by [her] grief.” Thus, even though she shares the same familial relationship with Maurice as she does with Teddy, his lack of love towards her distances her from him and in some cases even becomes lethal. Sylvie’s love for Ursula is certainly greater than Maurice’s but is also much fickler than Hugh’s. Sylvie has the opposite reaction from her husband regarding Ursula’s abortion. She views the rape as being entirely Ursula’s fault, and once Ursula arrives home from the hospital, Sylvie is exceptionally cold to Ursula and prevents her from seeing her therapist Dr. Kellet. As a result of Sylvie’s reaction, Ursula marries Derek because he is the only person on whom she feels she can rely, and because Sylvie convinces her that no man would want her now that she is not “intact.” Derek is abusive and ultimately beats Ursula to death, demonstrating how Sylvie’s callousness becomes incredibly harmful. Sylvie is not as cold to Ursula in other timelines, but this timeline affects how Ursula (and readers) might view the others, knowing that in times of crisis, Sylvie’s love proves to be very unreliable.
Family relationships can be uniquely strong bonds, but not all relationships are equal. The Todd household generally stands as an example of a normal, warm family. But in times of crisis, the support and love (or lack thereof) that each family member bears Ursula can have direct, life-altering impacts on her health and happiness.
Family and Love ThemeTracker
Family and Love Quotes in Life After Life
“Intact?” Ursula echoed, staring at Sylvie in the mirror. What did that mean, that she was flawed? Or broken?
“One’s maidenhood,” Sylvie said. “Deflowering,” she added impatiently when she saw Ursula’s blank expression. “For someone who is far from innocent you seem remarkably naive.”
“Could you do that? Could you kill a baby? With a gun? Or what if you had no gun, how about with your bare hands? In cold blood.”
If I thought it would save Teddy, Ursula thought. Not just Teddy, of course, the rest of the world, too.
She held tightly on to Frieda and soon they were both wrapped in the velvet wings of the black bat and this life was already unreal and gone.
She had never chosen death over life before and as she was leaving she knew something had cracked and broken and the order of things had changed.
Become such as you are, having learned what that is. She knew what that was now. She was Ursula Beresford Todd and she was a witness.
She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing in the air like long-lost souls. This is love, Ursula thought. And the practice of it makes it perfect.
Ursula stayed where she was, worried suddenly that if she moved it would all disappear, the whole happy scene break into pieces before her eyes. But then she thought, no, this was real, this was true, and she laughed with uncomplicated joy as Teddy let go of Nancy long enough to stand to attention and give Ursula a smart salute.