There are two editions of How To Be Both: one with George’s part first, and the other with Francesco del Cosso’s part first. I was fortunate enough to have George’s part first, and thank god I did. I’m not 100% sure I would have even continued reading this book from start to finish if I had started with del Cosso’s narrative. In George’s narrative we learn about her life in Cambridge with her father and younger brother after the devastating death of her mother. George’s father chooses to deal with the pain by drinking away his sorrows and so George is left to deal with her sense of loss and grief, and that of her brother’s, by herself and predictably she finds herself lonely and confused. The other half of the book follows del Cosso, a painter in the 1460s who is desperately trying to get his work recognized – but del Cosso has a secret, and not all is as it seems.The two stories might seem completely unrelated, but Ali Smith knits the two together with some very clever crafting. We move backwards and forwards through time in this novel as a whole and in the individual’s narrative so we see del Cosso’s paintings in a museum in George’s world, but George is also becomes a part of del Cosso’s world in the 15th century. This book is all about how everything is both one thing and another and this movement through time demonstrates how time means both nothing and everything. For example, George’s mother is both constantly present, and yet never present and this is something that poor George has to learn to cope with.I really enjoyed George’s part of the story – she’s a character that you grow to love and you feel a deep sense of sympathy for her. She’s feisty and strong-willed, even in her grief, and she’s a great female lead. del Cosso’s part was far less interesting in my opinion and I often found myself incredibly bored. The writing doesn’t have much structure and I found myself swimming in a load of words that had no meaning to me. This was incredibly disappointing and really ruined the story for me. His narrative wasn’t all bad, of course there were also some very intriguing passages and many interesting questions were raised but the frequent lapses into (what I thought were) incomprehensible passages makes it quite hard work getting through his half of the story.
Whilst the point of releasing these two editions was to reinforce the fact that this book can be read it either order and that both ways are fine, I would have to disagree with this strongly. George’s part of the story really sets the story up and explains how the two different stories fit together. Yes, the two stories are linked in such a way that both of them regularly make references to the other half of the story; however, to begin reading del Cosso’s part would put the reader at a huge disadvantage and leave a lot more questions unanswered. Any mention of George and her life would have very little meaning in del Cosso’s part if you did not already know a bit about her situation. No matter which way round your edition of this book is, I think it would be a good idea to read the first half, then the second half, then the first half again, to truly understand all the links between the two novels and pick up anything that you may have missed the first time.