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#readbyatt: Update the Last (Or, a Review of ‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt)

possession by a.s. byatt coverCongrats! If you were reading along or keeping track, this Monday marks the end of the readalong of Possession by A.S. Byatt that Lu (Regular Rumination) and I hosted over the month of March. If you want to get caught up with our thoughts through our first sections of the book, you can find them at these links:

With that housekeeping out of the way, on to some thoughts on the book as a whole!

As I said in one of my earlier posts, the first, I believe, one of the reasons we picked Possession for this project is that it is a book both Lu and I (and it appears many others) have tried to read but abandoned after a few chapters. In fact, when I picked up my book to start this time around I still had the bookmark in it from where I abandoned it around page 50 sometime last year.

Possession isn’t an easy book to get into right away. Our opening narrator, a milquetoast scholar named Roland Mitchell, is hard to care about. And the Victorian poet he studies, Randolph Henry Ash, initially appears equally difficult to care about (especially if you are a reader like me that doesn’t especially love Victorian poetry) despite Roland’s discovery of the drafts of some letters to a mysterious woman — soon revealed as fellow Victorian poet Christabel Lamott — in one of Randolph’s books.

I want to say that the novel picks up, but I don’t think that would be entirely true. The plot gains momentum as Roland and Lamott expert Maud Bailey work to uncover clues about a possible relationship between the two authors, consulting letters, poetry, diaries and other scholarly texts in the process. But the book never really becomes plot-driven in a way I was expecting it too. It’s a restrained but incredibly intelligent novel.

I mentioned in another post, I think the third, that what I realized as I read is that Possession is a novel that rewards work. It rewards readers who are willing to read slowly and deliberately, to appreciate the way Byatt constructs the narrative, the way she doles out clues and red herrings in the different textual pieces she invents to fill in this story. I haven’t read difficult fiction in awhile, so adjusting to that took me some time.

Ultimately though, I’m so glad I read this book. Aside from reminding me about the pleasure there is in slow, challenging reading, Byatt created some deeply engaging characters. The love story/mystery that Byatt creates for Randolph and Christabel and the way their relationship spirals out of control to affect the people around them is moving and sad and wonderful.

The book certainly has some flaws. I never connected with Roland and Maud as much as I wanted to, and some of the peripheral characters in the modern sections of the book were more caricatures than people. And I’ll admit that, more than once, I skimmed over the included poetry because it would just derail me. But I think those are small pieces in comparison to what was, overall, an enjoyable reading experience. Possession is worth the effort and I’m glad I found a way with Lu and the rest of the participants on our #readbyatt hashtag to make that effort worth it.

We’re also working on putting together a watch-along of the movie, which is currently available on Netflix instant. I think we’re still debating between two dates, April 7 or April 14 at 7 p.m. CST. I’ll keep you posted on our decision, or check in with the #readbyatt hashtag on Twitter.

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  • jennygirl April 1, 2013, 11:03 am

    I am very happy this worked out for you Kim. Even though I didn’t finish, I like the read-along aspect because it kept me in there long enough to give a real try. Let me know if there’s anything else you’re contemplating 🙂

    • Kim April 3, 2013, 7:35 pm

      Good, I’m glad the experience was worthwhile even if the book didn’t end up being for you. Florinda of The 3Rs Blog and I are planning another readlong that we’re posting about tomorrow which you might be interested in.

  • Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) April 1, 2013, 4:49 pm

    I read this years ago and I remember a similar reaction. That it was a good reminder that it can be fun to work hard at reading fiction and that I really wanted to connect to the characters more than I did.

    • Kim April 3, 2013, 7:36 pm

      I loved the historical characters… but the modern day ones felt a little lacking (mostly Roland who was so dull for so much of the story).

  • Jenny April 1, 2013, 6:37 pm

    I’m trying to remember anything about this movie! I remembering thinking all of the stars were perfectly harmless — not exactly a glowing recommendation. And I always wonder who had the idea of making this book of all books into a movie.

    • Kim April 3, 2013, 7:36 pm

      Yeah, I’m curious how it will go. I haven’t heard glowing reviews of the movie, but I think it’ll be fun in the wake of the book anyway.

  • beastmomma April 2, 2013, 9:31 am

    I really enjoyed participating in the read-a-long and loved the Twitter chat. I agree with you that the book was better read slowly and with a group.

    • Kim April 3, 2013, 7:37 pm

      Thank you for joining us!

  • Belle Wong April 3, 2013, 12:58 pm

    I’ve had this on my to-read list for so long. It’s good to know it takes a while to get into it, because I normally don’t give a book longer than a few chapters to engage me.

    • Kim April 3, 2013, 7:37 pm

      This one took me more than 100 pages to really get into, which is why I’d never stuck with it before. I still skimmed some of the poetry, but overall I really loved it.

  • Heather April 9, 2013, 2:46 pm

    I’m so glad this one worked for you in the end. Byatt really does make you work for it with this book, but it is rewarding in the end. It becomes an even richer experience in rereads. The audio is fantastic!

  • beastmomma April 9, 2013, 8:50 pm

    I finally posted my review. Thanks for a great challenge: http://beastmomma.squarespace.com/from-shelf-to-hand/2013/4/9/possession.html