Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-03-26
- Reviewer: Staff
In the 19th century, a Milton Bradley version of the British board game the Mansion of Happiness (known in recent decades as Life) became an enduring staple of American homes. The game raised in a playful way three perennial questions: how does life begin? what does it mean? and what happens when you’re dead? With her characteristically sharp-edged humor and luminous storytelling, Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Lepore (New York Burning) regales us with stories that follow the stages of life (“begin with the unborn and end with the undead”) in an attempt to explore how cultural responses to the questions have changed over time. This journey takes us to unexpected places: for instance, the practicality, politics, and ethics of breast pumps, and cryogenics as a form of resurrection. Through these stories, Lepore shows that as fertility rates changed and as life expectancies rose, the history of life and death, long viewed as circular (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) became more linear, incorporating even secular ideas about immortality. Lepore’s inspired commentary on our shared social history offers a fresh approach to our changing views of life and death. Agent: Tina Bennett, Janklow & Nesbit. (July)
Asking the big questions
In the modern board game of Life, players come to a fork in the journey very early on: get a job or go to college. If they choose college, they might find a higher-paying job in the long run, but they’ll have to take out loans and pile up debt before ever collecting a paycheck. Players might start a family along life’s road, but whichever fork they choose, unlike real life, always leads to retirement and never to death.
The Mansion of Happiness—the prototype for Life—was the most popular board game in 19th-century Britain, and while it was more moralistic than its later American counterpart, it raised many of the same questions about this journey called life. With her characteristically vivid storytelling, New Yorker writer Jill Lepore uses this British game to embark on a stunning meditation on three questions that have dominated serious reflection about human nature and culture for centuries: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die?
Lepore proceeds by exploring the stages of life from before birth, infancy and childhood to growing up, growing old, dying and life after death. For example, she examines 17th-century physician William Harvey’s discovery that human life begins with an egg (as opposed to the long-held belief that humans germinated from seeds), and illustrates the ways that such an idea came to have significant political consequences for women by the latter half of the 20th century. She focuses on the Karen Ann Quinlan case to show how the definitions of life and death—once the province of religion—were suddenly decided not in a hospital or a church but in a courtroom.
Through these stories, Lepore demonstrates how the contemplation of life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, so that scientific narratives of progress now promise a different sort of eternity—right up to the vague idea that one day, when the Earth dies, humans will simply move to outer space. In The Mansion of Happiness, Lepore’s refreshing and often humorous insights breathe fresh air into these everlasting matters.