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#readbyatt: Update the First

by Kim on March 11, 2013 · 15 comments

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Woo! I made it through the first six chapters of Possession! This is a feat I have never accomplished, so I feel like a read-a-long winner no matter what happens next. If you’re reading along, I hope you’ve made it this far too.

I’m not sure how to structure these updates, so I’m just going to meander and see where this goes. Feel free to join up the conversation in the comments or leave links to your posts there too (I’ll watch today and make sure they don’t get sent to spam).

Our Story So Far

The year is 1986 (the year I was born, interestingly enough). Dr. Roland Martin, a middle-of-the-road scholar of 17th century poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovers the drafts of two letters buried in the middle of one of Ash’s old books. The letters appear to be love letters, of a kind, that are unprecedented in Ash scholarship. Roland steals the letters from the book, intent on figuring them out.

After some investigation, Roland comes to believe the letters may be to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet of the same period who is of some interest to feminist scholars. Roland’s mentor suggests visiting Maud Bailey, a scholar familiar with LaMotte at a university that houses many of LaMotte’s unpublished papers. Roland goes to see Maud, shares his theory, and the two of them decide to take a trip to LaMotte’s grave (or something related to the estate, I can’t remember).

While visiting, they run into the current caretakers of the LaMotte property who invite them in for tea. While exploring LaMotte’s room, Maud discovers a cache of hidden letters between Ash and LaMotte — a scholarly gold mine! But the caretakers — particularly cantankerous and suspicious Sir George — won’t let them take the letters and they leave empty-handed.

Meanwhile, competing scholar Mortimer Copper, who by all accounts seems to be a creep, is going out of his way to buy up all of the Ash memorabilia he can find. </End Section>

Some Thoughts On the Book

I went into this first section of the book hoping to figure out why I’ve started and stopped reading this book multiple times. The answer is, I’m afraid, that the beginning of this book is boring:

Point 1: Roland is a bland narrator to start out this story. I mean, come on. The guy is a part-time scholar who self-describes as a “latecomer” to interesting things with (it appears) an unpleasant girlfriend. He’s bland like dry toast.

Maud, in contrast, is infinitely more interesting. I love the turban and the detail about why she uses it to cover her hair that is revealed while she’s getting ready for bed. More of that, please!

Point 2: The epistolary format doesn’t let the novel get any momentum. Every time the plot seems to be ready to take a leap forward, the book makes a left turn to insert some sort of extra text — another letter, a chapter from a book, a short story, a poem — that are, I’m sure, significant… but not what I need to get into this story. I usually love epistolary details in novels, but in this case I’m not invested enough in the rest of the story to want to read through the extra-textual bits to get back to anything or spend the mental energy to think about what the point is. Give me some plot, please!

(Clearly, reading this one right after listening to A Discovery of Witches, which also starts out with discovering a manuscript in a library, was a bad plan. That book is all plot.)

But chapter six ends with some intrigue — the introduction of dastardly (maybe?) scholar Mortimer Cropper, however creepy, brings some drama — and I’m looking forward to the next section.

Burning Questions Going Forward

  • Will Roland ever become more interesting? Please, reading gods, I hope so.
  • Is Mortimer Cropper really as much of a creeper as he appears? Are the “other photographs of which he had a large and varied collection” as gross as I think they will be?
  • What will happen to the letters? And what is up with Sir George (not a fun dude)?
  • And what is up with all the commentary on feminists at the digs at the Womens’ Studies department? Are these jokes? Commentary from Byatt? I don’t know how to read that at all.

What did you think of the first section of this book? Any predictions for our next section, Chapters 7 – 13, set to be finished on Monday, March 18?

You can also read Lu’s reaction to this section here. Happy Monday!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Care March 11, 2013 at 11:33 am

Spot on quick synopsis! Yes, Roland is… dull. Byatt has always struck me as extremely intelligent and sneaky, tho. So I must imaging Roland will surprise us somehow. Byatt has such a deep and amazing imagination – I mean, look at all she has conjured up in just the poet Ash! Backstory? poems, yikes. And I always think I’m missing a clever bit of humor, tho not yet in this story. I expect it is coming.
But what is up with all the green. I wish I had kept track of how many times the word green has occurred. Hopefully nothing. Maybe I really need Spring.

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Kim March 11, 2013 at 6:24 pm

I agree. I think Roland is going to get more interesting now that he has an interesting question to pursue. Plus he’ll be hanging out with Maud, so that has to help.

And it is a really deep story, in the sense that she’s put together a multi-layered story full of people of multiple eras with full stories and lives. I think getting into those is going to be cool.

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Trisha March 11, 2013 at 1:01 pm

This is a book that has been on the shelves for ages, but I just can’t bring myself to pick it up. I’ll see what you think at the end. :)

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Kim March 11, 2013 at 6:25 pm

It had been on my for a long time too, so I’m glad to have come up with the motivation to read it.

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Laura March 11, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I read ‘Possession’ a few years ago and while yes, this book is difficult to slog through at times and pretty dense, all I gotta say is: just make it to the end. After I finished the last page, all I could say was, “Wow.” And I was surprised at myself, since I had no idea what I’d think about it. Anyway, reading about your reading challenge forced me to revisit my own abbreviated review-let of ‘Possession’ and I used the words “heart-wrenching” and “powerful.” I hope you feel the same way! :) Love your blog, by the way. I’m also a young, small-town journalist so I enjoy reading your perspectives!

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Kim March 17, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Thank for the encouragement! As I was thinking about the book this week, I realized part of the reason I’m being so melodramatic about it is because I’ve gotten lazy as a reader. Being challenging shouldn’t be a detriment to a book. So, I’m excited to keep going and get to the awesome that you and others suggest this book has :)

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Jeanne March 12, 2013 at 7:24 am

I read this book years ago and have no desire to reread it right now, but I do remember that it was mysterious and obsessive and compelling, so it must get better. Of course, it is a story line designed to appeal to academics.

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Kim March 17, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Oh definitely, this book was written for academics. I am not one, myself, but I wanted to be one for a long time. I think you have to be in the mood to read it — a mood I’m slowly getting into.

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Iris March 17, 2013 at 9:56 am

I read the diggs at the women’s studies department as commentary by Byatt. Working in uni in one of the countries where gender studies is still, unfortunately, approached with exactly the same kinds of prejudices, I find her observations very astute.

(I finally caught up for section 1, I fear I may finish behind all of you).

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Kim March 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I think that’s how they’re supposed to be read too, as something we as readers are supposed to think sounds stupid. But when they come from Roland, it’s hard to know since I think we’re supposed to like him?

I’m glad you’re reading with us, even slightly behind. The point is to finish, not necessarily on our schedule.

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