Monday, April 14, 2008


Today's book review is for Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Amazon's Summary:
"Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion.

And my two cents:
At times, the plethora of mediums in which the author speaks can be overwhelming...this one book includes straight-forward narrative, exerpts of fictitious literary criticism, poetry, epic poetry, letters, journal entries, more straight-forward narrative between non-contemporary can be overwhelming. But one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer *believability* the author is able to exude, whether she's creating fictional 19th century epic poetry, or describing the investigations of modern scholars. The one place where I felt this book was weak was in her attempt to create a "new version of love" in which two people can remain cool and separate, unemotional, and yet still conduct an affair. I never felt any kinship or enthusiasm towards the contemporary romance for this reason.

Also, Byatt's philosophizing can get rather heavy-handed in a book that is already rather overwhelming. Don't be surprised if you have to skip certain segments of this book, but try not to skip too much of the journal entries or the poetry, as both are enjoyable and well written.

As far as applicability to the Pre-Raphaelites, the link is more indirect, although names of movers and shakers in the P.R.B. are mentioned throughout, but the *tone* of the book feels rather Pre-Raphaelite, as the poets and artists of the day dealt with a lot of the same issues.


Meredith said...

Strangest coincidence! I check your blog everyday (big fan, by the way). I tried to read "Possession" as a teenager but I wasn't ready. After reading your blog, I made the decision to give it another try. About an hour ago, I was at a neighborhood sandwich shop and went to the bookshelf where local library used books are sold, and guess what book should be there? For only a dollar, I now own a copy!

Aurora said...

Interesting review...I might check this out again. I tried it years ago, when it first came out, and couldn't make it past the first couple of chapters--it was heavy with that cloying sense of *something* that I find in so many Modern Literature. (And yes, those caps are intentional. Lesser fiction is not so encumbered with literary fads. ;))

I have since read a few books where, if I can sit through chapters and chapters, there's some sort of payoff for that dark cloak of deadness (is it despair? lack of hope? I don't know--but it's prevalent in Modern Literature!)--but at the time, I couldn't be bothered, so I perhaps missed a good book.

On the other hand, the movie is a visual treat--and completely lacking in pretensions. It's just your standard costume drama, with lots of PRB nods in it. (Not to mention the dishy Jeremy Northam. ;)) It's not deep, but it's very enjoyable...and very, very pretty. :)

Grace said...

Meredith, that is a bit of serendipity! Let me know what you think of the book!

Aurora, I know exactly what you mean about the tone of the book, because I noticed it too. That's why I much preferred the segments about the actual poets to the ones about the scholars studying them today.

Margaret said...

What an interesting idea for a book! It does sound a bit complicated, though.

Anonymous said...

Hands down, this is one of my favorite books (mentioned on my blog here and here.

I was 17 when I first read it. I read it all the way through and loved it, but I know that I just didn't "get it all" on the first read.
I re-read it all the time. That, and Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier are probably the two books that have meant the most to me in my life.

Have you read other A.S. Byatt books? Her short stories are brilliant. I love her novella, Angels and Insects.

Grace said...

I saw in a passing review on Amazon that someone else said that Angels and Insects was really good as well. I may try it out eventually.

All in all I enjoyed reading it, definitely!

Aurora said...

I haven't read Angels and Insects, either, due to my figuring that AS Byatt was just one of those Modern Writers whose style I don't care for...but I can tell you that the movie version was fantastic! (Although unlike Possession, it IS full of pretentions--very self-conscious comparisons between people and the insect world. Now me, I love that sort of thing, if done well...and they did it beautiully. There's an opening ball scene, where all the women are in hyperreal colored gowns--all recognizable as being based on butterfly wings...the mother of the large family is made to look like a huge queen ant, doing nothing but eating and breeding...oh--it's delicious! :D)

(Wasn't it originally released as Morpho Eugenia?)

Aurora said...

(As an interesting aside...the original novella of Angels and Insects was called "Morpho Eugenia", after a butterfly that is brought back from South America. The morpho familiy of butterflies makes for fascinating reading...being one of the few butterflies with iridescent wings...and living out it's life above the tree canopy of the rainforests. I have one morpho, myself--although not the one I especially want--a morpho aurora! :D Sadly, it's not as pretty as the common morpho I have, but still--I *ought* to have one, don't you think?! ;))

Do some reading on morphos! It's good stuff! :D

Grace said...

Aurora you butterfly collector you. :) I do want to see the movie...I want to see Possession and Angels and Insects both. So many interests, so little time!!

Aurora said...

Guilty, as charged! :P

Owlfarmer said...

Byatt's work can be a bit of a slog, but it's always worth it. It helps if you've got the background (the essentially Victorian breadth of knowledge Byatt packs into her novels) and like reading for style and depth rather than just for story. I was a bit impatient the first time I read it (I kept "spoiling" it for myself by reading ahead). But once I knew what happened, I could sit back and really enjoy how well she writes and how much she clearly knows about the period. The film version was well done, indeed, but the book --when given a leisurely enough read--is better. The sheer texture of the story is well worth savoring.