Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

There has been a lot of discussion about this story, with people either loving it, or hating it. I myself seem to be stuck somewhere in the middle. I loved the story, and the whole idea of it, but the way it was written made it a difficult read for me. There are spoilers below, which I normally try to avoid, but they are necessary in this instance.



Lincoln in the Bardo Cover image
cover image property of 

The premise of the story takes place on the night of young Willie Lincoln’s death, and the subsequent days that followed. Unable to bear the loss of his son, President Lincoln visits the crypt where Willie has been placed; several times.

The President is unaware that in this cemetery are many souls who have chosen to not move on, including his son. Only one of these souls is aware that they are all truly dead, while the others are all waiting for their loved ones to come back to get them, believing they are only sick. This place where the souls are lingering is what is known as the bardo.

The initial visit of the President has the others all hopeful that their loved ones will indeed come back for them.

The reason I had a hard time reading this story is the way the chapters are written. I literally was over two chapters in before I had any idea what was going on. The first chapter was of conversations between souls stuck in the bardo. I had no idea this is what I was reading. An example is below. Hans and Roger are lost souls, and I thought I was reading a normal conversation between two persons, such as you would read in any other story. I had no idea they were dead.


The other chapters in between were all cited excerpts from many, many sources of stories that had been written concerning the Lincolns, the night Willie died, and the party that was taking place down stairs. The Lincoln’s had been assured Willie was indeed on the mend, so President Lincoln opted to not withdraw the hundreds of invitations to the dinner that had been sent out. Below is what these chapters look like. (I apologize for the blurriness of this page, I could not get a sharp photo for some reason, although I took it right after the photo above 😦 )


As you can see (I hope!) after each excerpt is the source of what book, newspaper, conversation, or diary the information came from. I hate to admit, but I am the type of reader who cannot skip over reading something, so I found myself reading Every. Single. Citation. After a few chapters of this, I just let it go and ignored all the rest of the citations. If I hadn’t, I never would have gotten through it.

I loved the story, the true emotions expressed by not only what the President was going through as he continued to visit and hold his deceased son, but the emotions of those souls stuck in the bardo. The felt hope that their loved ones would also finally come for them, fear in moving on as happened to very few throughout the story, and the final realization that they were indeed dead.

I am curious as to what anyone else who has read this story thought! Did you realize right from the beginning what you were reading, or were you confused like I was?

25 thoughts on “Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

  1. thebookwormdrinketh May 30, 2018 / 10:49 am

    Definitely an interesting concept, but I can understand how it could be confusing! Sounds like a lot of different styles and not much explanation! Great review! 👍🍻

  2. Kelsey @ There's Something About KM May 30, 2018 / 12:20 pm

    Those citations would get me too! When this book was published I added it to my TBR almost immediately because it was getting so much great buzz, but I’ve seen many more great reviews like yours that make the format seem a little jarring. I considered listening to the audiobook, but each character is voiced by a different person and I don’t think I would be able to keep up with that.

    • Angela May 30, 2018 / 2:16 pm

      Someone told me the audio book was excellent. I may try it if I can get it at my library! Thanks for sharing!

  3. StuPC May 30, 2018 / 12:55 pm

    I’m a big fan of George Saunders and was *so* looking forward to this book, but sad to say I put it down and never picked it up again about a third of the way through.
    Just…didn’t get it…and found the style awkward and jarring. 😦
    Does it help to be an American and know the significance of Lincoln and the bardo?

    • Angela May 30, 2018 / 2:17 pm

      I almost put it down a couple times myself, but I am a huge fan of Lincoln, so I stuck it out. I did enjoy the “story”, but dreaded having to read it due to the style of the chapters. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Brittany May 30, 2018 / 12:55 pm

    I tried reading it a few months ago, but I couldn’t make it past the first chapter. Good to know it’s more understandable after a few chapters.

    • Angela May 30, 2018 / 2:20 pm

      It took me getting part way through the 3rd chapter before I realized I was reading both conversations between dead people,, and citations thrown in from people who new the Lincoln’s and were around them during this tragedy in their lives. Then I had to go back and skim everything I had read to make sense of it 🙂

      • Brittany May 30, 2018 / 2:35 pm

        Ugh. That just sounds like too much work to read a book!

  5. Johann Thorsson May 30, 2018 / 1:32 pm

    I read it and loved it. Yes, the style can be a bit much, but I just started ignoring the quote atteibutiin and read it straight. Absolute treasure.

    • Angela May 30, 2018 / 2:22 pm

      I too had to stop reading every citation, and it made it much easier to read. I think the story itself is brilliant, I just didn’t care for the layout of it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! There seems to be lots of feelings on both sides about this book!

  6. Kristin @ Kristin Kraves Books May 30, 2018 / 5:39 pm

    I was confused at first as well but once I got the hang of the writing and figured out what was going on I really liked it. I think it is a book that I need to reread in order to fully understand it. I have heard the audiobook is fantastic!

    • Angela May 31, 2018 / 7:57 am

      I heard the audio book was great as well! I am hoping I can find it at my library 🙂

  7. The Cozy Pages June 2, 2018 / 4:48 pm

    Very interesting concept. Although I’d heard of this book I didn’t realize exactly what it was about… thanks for sharing!

  8. sleepingkoala45 June 3, 2018 / 7:37 am

    What a great review. I’ve been debating on this one for awhile now. Definitely going to be a library checkout.

    • Angela June 3, 2018 / 7:50 am

      I would love to hear what you think of it! I am going to try the audio version if I can find it at my library, I have heard only positive things about the audio version, versus about 50/50 on the actual book!

      • sleepingkoala45 June 3, 2018 / 7:50 am

        I’m putting a hold on a library copy now!! I’ll let you know!

      • Angela June 3, 2018 / 7:53 am

        Great, thanks!

  9. Rae Longest June 5, 2018 / 6:04 pm

    I’m glad you told me enough about this book to keep me from foundering around, confused, at the beginning. I might give it a try. It does seem awfully sad though.

    • Angela June 5, 2018 / 7:18 pm

      It is worth the read, and I hope knowing the layout of it helps you. Thanks for sharing Rae!

  10. mamasbookramblins June 15, 2018 / 11:26 am

    I thought this book was so wonderful and weird and confusing all at once! Lol. I also had to ignore the citations after a bit. My sister did the audiobook and loved it, so I listened to it also (after reading it first) and the experience was awesome. It did help, I think, that I overheard someone talking about the book so I started out knowing a general gist of what it was about.

    • Angela June 15, 2018 / 11:34 am

      I am hoping to get a hold of the audio book as well. I have heard only great things about it! Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

      • mamasbookramblins August 14, 2018 / 11:27 am

        Did you ever read this?! Excited to hear what you thought!

  11. Therapy With Books June 26, 2018 / 2:10 pm

    I probably had too high of an expectation from this book given how hyped it was. Enjoyed reading it but didn’t blow my mind. Am also on the fence about the style.

    • Angela June 27, 2018 / 7:12 am

      I am on the fence as well. I did like it, but I was a brutal read for me…..

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