This book has been sitting on my shelf since last autumn; didn’t get around to reading it because I was up in Ottawa for the fall semester so when I got back this past weekend, I figured it be one of the first books to tackle in my TBR list xD
By: A.S. Byatt
The only thing Maud Bailey and Roland Michell have in common is a love of Victorian poets. They’ve dedicated their lives to finding out as much as they can about two obscure poets when their paths unexpectedly cross. Their independent research reveals that their respective subjects once shared a passionate love affair. At first they’re upset that this information will change all their past research, but soon they become consumed by the romance of long-ago and work feverishly together to unearth every detail.
I heard of this book last year on GoodReads; a lot of the book groups I was a member of had read this book in their monthly reads and I heard praises of this book from people in my flist. So I decided to check it out. Have been trying to finish my final draft of my proposal but in the process I couldn’t put this book down, lol. Although I used it as my book for this week’s Teaser Tuesday, I ended up finishing it last night xD Spoilers ahoy!
Overall, I thought the book was interesting. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize for 1990 as it is complete with poems, correspondence, biographical snippets, journal entries and so forth. It’s quite a feat to not only do this but also in a way that really makes the reader feel as though these are actually real pieces of documentation.
The story itself was pretty interesting and kept my interest. I’ve always enjoyed stories where the characters are trying to piece together what happened in the past and the mystery in this story really kept me going when the detail and the theory bogged me down (more on that in a bit). There’s a lot of perspectives going on and at one point you actually get a narrative from the past of events that were taking place.
The love story between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte is a tragic one; the last bit at the end really drove that aspect home to the reader. The present story, particularly between Roland Mitchell and his girlfriend Val was a little maddening because of what’s going on; you know their relationship has broken down and yet they continue on. Then again, I wasn’t very fond of Val as a character because she spent most of the novel walking around in a confusing ball of frustration and indifference. It was interesting to see the development of Roland and Maud Bailey’s relationship in turn because of how they come from two different places both academically and personally and yet they look for the same things life. The established academics Cropper, Blackadder, Stern and Neal (might’ve spelt her last name wrong, I remember her first naem was Beatrice) were interesting and eccentric in their own right (if not slightly stereotypical to some extent).
In all honesty though I didn’t find myself particularly warming up to the characters in a way that by the end I found myself caring for each and every one of them (this is one reason why I only gave this book a 3-star rating). The only characters I particularly had some regard for was Randolph Ash and Roland and I understood Maud to some extent. I think this has to do with the writing and the perspective that Byatt herself had brought to this book; while the incorporation of the mediums made the book fascinating, she also brought a sort of academic detachment to the novel as well. There’s this sort of rationality that went with each of the characters that I found that I could never trascend and connect with these characters on some basic, human level. While this makes sense in part because most of the characters that inhabit this novel are academics, and maybe this was the point of the appraoch, it just didn’t sit well with me as a reader reading the story as it unfolds. The only character I found elliciting some sort of emotional level was the poet Ash himself; you really get a sense of his feelings on paper. Christabel was a mixed bag for me; I may have missed it while I was reading the book but I found at times I wasn’t sure if she felt for Ash the same intensity as what he felt for her. Unless Christabel was on the same level as Roland, Maud, etc. in terms of how she displays her affections (which you can draw some pretty clear parallels between Christabel and Maud).
The other reason I was a bit turned off by the book (and this is more of a personal preference) was the amount of literary theory involved. Granted, the characters were academics in English and literary theory, but the amount of dialogue and detail on it really bogged me down. I’m less of a theory person academics-wise; I will read it when it pertains to my studies and to provide a background for the context of events, but otherwise I’m not big on it. The other bit that was also a bit of a turn off for me was the feminist theory that was prevalent in the book; again, it was important given Bailey and Stern’s background in gender studies and in part because of the time that the book took place but darn, it was a bit much for me. Again, it’s a matter of personal preference, I’m not big on feminist theory and gender studies in academics. While they are important in shaping the characters and driving the perspectives in studying Ash and LaMotte, I thought Byatt could’ve simplified or lessen it in certain parts.
I have to say that there was this one part that interested me; I don’t have the page number on me but it was during a discussion between Maud and Roland and it was pointed out that love was distrusted at this time and replaced with just the sexual aspect of love. Reflecting on it, I have to say that it’s true if you look at society these days; everything’s about the physical and the concept of love is treated with skepticism.
Overall, it was an interesting novel and I’m glad to have read it. It was a good book, I just wish there was more connection with the characters rather than just a detached analysis and presentation of the characters. That and maybe less on the literary theory and feminist streak.