A little background on the book: Cloud Atlas was published in 2004, and was shortlisted that year for the Man Booker Prize (as well as the Nebula and an Arthur C. Clarke award in the same year). The novel was adapted for film--with, I think, limited success--in 2012.
[Spoilers follow, such as they are, so if you haven't read the book--look away.]
Cloud Atlas is, I've learned, a set of nested stories, the first being partial excerpt of the journal of Adam Ewing, a San Franciscan in Australia waiting repairs to his ship to sail home. This section sent me off on a massive Googling expedition: everything from Maori to Moriori (the former invaded the peaceful latter in the 1800s) to the term "Aotearea" (the Maori word for New Zealand) to the definition of "valetudinarian" (showing undue anxiety about one's health).
I'll admit I started--and finished--this first section more than a little confused by what I was reading, but willing to make the effort because... well, because so many people I know and respect really love Mitchell's work. So I figured it had to be going somewhere, right?
The novel then shifts, rather abruptly (the first section quite literally ends mid-sentence), to a series of letters sent from Robert Frobisher to the unidentified "Sixsmith." I had a much better time getting a grasp on the flow of the story, such as it is, in Frobisher's letters than I did in Ewing's journal--and then, lo and behold!, the two converge, in a way, when Frobisher finds a segment of Ewing's published journal (presumably the same segment we were treated to in the first section) amidst the library of his current abode:
"Something shifty about the journal's authenticity--seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn't ring quite true--but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?"
This quote marked the first time Cloud Atlas really hooked me--and I'm sure that's Mitchell's intent. Frobisher goes on to urge Sixsmith to find out more about the journal, for, as he aptly states, "A half-read book is a half-finished love affair."
Frobisher is flowery and entitled, obnoxious and more than a little over-the-top, but I found myself falling for the way he depicted his unreal and far-too-good-to-be-true little set-up to Sixsmith, ending on this fine reflection on the seasonal shifts:
"Gardener made a bonfire of fallen leaves--just came in from it. The heat on one's face and hands, the sad smoke, the crackling and wheezing fire... Air in the chateau clammy like laundry that won't dry. Door-banging drafts down the passageways. Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don't remember summer even saying good-bye."
Serious question, though: What does Frobisher have against verbs?
These first two sections felt like a tease; Mitchell's given me enough to have me interested, but not yet enough to have me hooked. Looking forward to seeing where we go with the next parts, and how this comes together. Is Adam Ewing really sick with a rare parasite that must be kept secret, and are Dr. Goose's "treatments" legit? What will become of Frobisher's dalliances with a married woman? And of said married woman's daughter's hatred of Frobisher? And who the hell is Sixsmith, anyway?