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1001 book reviews > The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

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message 1: by Jen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jen | 1608 comments Mod
NOTE: I think this is the first review for this book in the folder but I will double check and consolidate if needed.

The Children's book by A.S. Byatt
3 stars
This was my 4th and first successful attempt at reading this book. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I found the first half to be incredibly boring and difficult to read. Why was it difficult? Byatt is essentially writing this book as a way to capture an era and as such it's filled with hundreds of characters, art references, historical events, and more. Because there are so many characters, it made it hard for me to connect to any one character. The second I felt engaged in on story line, Byatt shifted to another storyline and some storylines were only a few paragraphs long.

On the other hand, the book had wonderful moments for me and as much as I felt disconnected from the characters, certain sections brought tears to my eyes. I found parts absolutely enthralling and I didn't want them to end. I also thought it was a clever book in that Byatt does present us with an enormous amount of information about the the era as she follows several families up through the end of WWI.

At the center of the book is the Wellwood family. Olive Wellwood is a writer of children's books. She writes children's fairy tales and has written books for each of her children and as they grow up she continues to write in each of their books. Olive lives with her husband, seven children, her sister, and various household staff. All the other characters are introduced in their connection with the Wellwood family but then their stories take a life of their own and diverge significantly. However, parallels are constantly drawn between Olive's dark fairy tales and the lives of the various characters. The families all have their dark secrets and pretty much every subject is tackled: Victorian banking crisis, relations between England and Germany, women's rights/suffrage, art in all forms, morality, war, identity, etc.

So all in all, a book that I thought was clever and clearly highly researched but inconsistent for me in terms of my own personal enjoyment.

Amanda Dawn | 1230 comments I listened to this one on audio for my TBR this month and I absolutely loved it and gave it 5 stars. After I got used to the rapid switch vignette structure, the story really roped me in. The Fabian society, the suffragette movement, WWI, and early 20th century children’s/pastoral literature are all facets of history I’m very interested in, and I loved how the book weaved between all these stories.

The idea of writing a story about how being in the profession of childhood does not necessarily make a good parent/healthy family was a really neat angle in my opinion as well. The contrast between fairy-story whimsy Olive and her practical doctor in training daughter Dorothy was a really interesting flip on the parent-child dynamic for me. I was also very taken by Julian and his love of Thomas and joining the famed Apostle society, sad tragic nature boy Thomas who is kind of ethereal and not bound to the real world, and fiery working class feminist Elise. Although, ultimately I did find the whole really big cast compelling in some way or another, even if they weren't likeable. The two Robins meeting in WWI near the end was also a stand out scene.

Another aspect of this book I really appreciated was the contrast between affluent self-proclaimed progressives and how they relate to actual working class people. Very well done. I’m looking forward to reading more by the author.

message 3: by Kristel (last edited Apr 20, 2021 09:59AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kristel (kristelh) | 4259 comments Mod
This book is a literary historical fiction set in England prior to and including WW1. It also is an epic family saga, exploration of art, writing, fairy tales as well as a political novel. So much is covered. Overall I enjoyed the story. My criticism is of the amount of sexualized content. I think this part was overdone and could have been cut back a great deal and still got the message across. It was enjoyable exploration of art and pottery. The political content was of Fabian society, anarchy, democratic socialism. The sexual content included sexualized art to point of gross so that it had to be locked and hidden, adultery, incest, rape and other areas as well. Really there is more that was included in this novel than left out. The time period of writing included Barre's Peter Pan. Oscar Wilde is mentioned and other notables. Overall a good work of literature. With so many hard subjects, it is hard to use the word enjoyable. It was engaging. Rating 3.5 to 4 pts.

Diane  | 2051 comments Rating: 3.75 stars

The story of a fairy tale writer and her family (and connected familes) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Really a lot going on here and a lot of characters. I liked how Byatt wove the fairy stories and historical moments into the overall plot.

To be honest, I am not overly fond of Byatt's style, but I found this much better than The Virgin in the Garden. While I found this masterful and list-worthy, I can't say I always enjoyed it.

Patrick Robitaille | 996 comments *** 1/2

This was my second encounter with Byatt, the first being Possession, which I didn't really like. This novel tracks the evolution of a few related families throughout the end of the Victoria era until the end of WWI. Stylistically, the construction of the novel mirrors some of the historical movements of the time: some members of the families are attracted by the various anarchist ideologies of the time; the novel itself is somewhat anarchic in the multitude of character perpesctives presented throughout. The Todefright Wellwoods are quite sympathetic to the Fabian and socialist movements; just like any socialist/communist novels, there is no single hero in the novel; the hero is more a collective of characters, each of whom deserves a certain focus at certain places in the novel. The women of this novel, once given the opportunity, show their strong character and undertake actions to change their condition; women are starting to be accepted in universities in England, the suffragette movement gains momentum and becomes more assertive and violent; several medical organizations are set up by women to assist relief efforts during WWI. So, through the evolution of a handful of families, we also follow the transition from a Golden era of the end of the 19th century to the more realistic and brutal world of European conflicts which started during WWI. While I appreciated these aspects of the novel, I am still struggling to like Byatt's writing style, which demonstrates the thorough research she must have undertaken in the preparation of this novel, but at the same time seems to flaunt her erudition with the use of several forgotten words in irritating accumulations. Besides, the last 50 pages of the book were quite bleak, too matter-of-fact and feeling rushed (I get the idea that she wanted to deal with the brutality and finality of WWI, but I don't think it is well done). Nevertheless, I felt this was a more readable novel than Possession. It really provides a good overview of some of the societal changes which were brewing at the beginning of the 20th century.

message 6: by Pip (last edited Jun 12, 2021 11:11PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pip | 1471 comments Like Patrick, I enjoyed this book much more than the other novel of A. S .Byatt's that I have read, Possession. I have to credit the reading by Juliet Stevenson in the Audible version for much of this. She produced subtle differences in accent to delineate the various characters, which also accentuated class differences. The time period covers much of the same era as Dorothy Richardson and Anthony Powell and even Proust, but by having a character or several characters immersed in anarchy, the suffragette movement, the Fabian society, the building of the Victoria and Albert Museum and fighting or nursing in the First World War, and by the way these historical movements became personal was fascinating. Although there were a great many characters who were interwoven in various ways, I managed to keep track of everyone and their stories. The main protagonist may have been Olive Wellwood but we didn't get to explore her interior development as we did with other characters. Art and craft were very important themes, from pottery to puppetry and writing children's books to writing about free love and nudism, there was a great deal to digest. I thoroughly enjoyed doing so and would have liked to have continued with the characters.

Gail (gailifer) | 1526 comments I gave this 4 stars for the incredible ambition of sharing the radical social changes before and during WWI by way of a huge cast of interrelated characters and their highly personal transformations. Byatt's ability to share the inner drives of many of her characters and hide the inner thoughts of others was very well balanced and left me continuing to wonder about exactly what Olive was thinking, exactly what Charles/Karl was thinking, exactly what Tom was thinking, while having a sense that I really knew Griselda, Elsie and Dorothy.
I appreciated her world building although at times I felt that she gathered too much into her sweep and then left parts and pieces on the floor.
It is the first book I have read by A.S. Byatt but it worries me that Pip and Patrick liked this better than Possession as it is on the list too.

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