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Staff Picks > Staff Pick - Possession by A.S. Byatt

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Annie Lee Phillips (annieleephillips) | 1156 comments Mod
I tend to jump around on my books depending on my mood, even if I haven't fnished something else. Border Run by Simon Lewis started to feel too anxiety inducing so I switched to a book that has been on my personal shelf for years with one previous attempt to read. I think I'm ready now! I actually saw the movie about 10 years ago and I'm already seeing, that of course, the book is so much more intricate, complicated, and BETTER! This one really isn't for someone who likes fast-plotting, a quick read and even having to pull out a dictionary. But it is witty, complex and helps you strengthen some mental muscles. I'll update as I go along. Posssession is available at several of our HMCPL branches, and you can also find Byatt's latest, Ragnarok: The End of the Gods at HMCPL as well.

Jessie J (subseti) | 42 comments I think Byatt is a wonderful writer. I finished "The Childrens Book" not too long ago, and was just amazed. "Possession" is really good!

message 3: by Laurel (new)

Laurel Best | 1 comments I really liked "The Children's Book" also but I've never been able to get through "Possession" despite several tries.

Annie Lee Phillips (annieleephillips) | 1156 comments Mod
Jessie and Laurel, I will have to try The Children's Book - I really enjoy Byatt's writing, although I already have a notepad with words and references to look up! This would definitely make a good ebook read so you could press and define as you go. I read some of her short stories a while back and they were great.

Abby | 13 comments Wow! My own library picks my all-time favorite novel to discuss? I'm in! I've read it several times, and just finished it (again) last week.
I first picked it up when I was 19 at the brand-new Barnes and Noble, just based on the cover. What I found as I turned the pages astounded me. Byatt's esoteric, borderline autistic, yet utterly hypnotic voice hooked me immediately. The scope of her knowledge is staggering. In the novel (romance?), we see her expertise in Victorian poetry (BECAUSE SHE WRITES IT), entomology, eighteenth and nineteenth century art, Norse mythology, and French fairy tales. To name a few.
I'm interested to know what librarians think of the book opening, in which Roland Mitchell pockets the Ash letter he finds at the London Library. Did it alter your view of him in any way? Do you think it made him just as unscrupulous as Cropper in the end?
In this latest reading, what stood out to me the most was the repeated imagery of cold things - ice, white, Scandinavia, water, snow, seals. Christabel lives out her life at Seal Court, and both she and Maude are described as seal-like, pale and icy many times. In Christabel's story, the princess (which is what Blanche calls her) is entombed inside of a glass coffin, much like another princess whose name evokes cold: Snow White.
Every reading of this novel, for me, starts out as a strictly semiotic one: I look for the meaning, the symbols, the hidden messages that Byatt is imparting to clever readers. It NEVER ends up that way, though. Somewhere around one-third of the way in, I begin tearing through it almost violently, anxious to follow these characters' stories.
When I read that the movie was being filmed, I couldn't understand how anyone, especially Neil Labute, could possibly take such a cerebral novel and bring it to life on a screen. The answer, of course, is that you take the "cerebral" out and make it a lackluster romance between 2 sets of characters you never quite get to know well enough to care about. It's a shame, because the actors portraying the Victorian poets, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, are brilliant, and given better material, could have perfectly embodied Ash and LaMotte.

Abby | 13 comments P.S. - If you like Byatt, you might also like the novels of her sister, Margaret Drabble (the two sisters don't speak. VERY interesting.). My favorite Drabble novels are "The Radiant Way" and "the Seven Sisters."

Jessie J (subseti) | 42 comments I had NO idea they were no sisters. I've never read any Margaret Drabble, but I want to now.

Abby | 13 comments Jesse, many take Drabble's first novel (published before Byatt, the elder sister, ever published anything), "A Summer Bird Cage," as a huge slap in the face to Byatt on a VERY personal level. A.S. Byatt's novel "The Game" is considered to be the reply, and her take on Drabble in general. I haven't read Drabble's novel because I haven't found it anywhere, but The Game is quite damning. Byatt did not have kind things to say about Drabble's take on their mother in "The Peppered Moth," either.

message 9: by Annie Lee (last edited Jun 08, 2012 09:38AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Annie Lee Phillips (annieleephillips) | 1156 comments Mod
Abby, thanks for your wonderful endorsement! I am right now at the part where Mortimer Cropper is about to take Beatrice Nest to lunch. Byatt has such a way of describing these characters that makes them funny, with their quirks, and sad too at how vulnerable they can be. I am blown away by the depth and breadth of her knowledge. It's stunning. And wow, I did not know that either about the Drabble/Byatt sibling feud. That is very unfortunate.

Jessie J (subseti) | 42 comments Abby wrote: "Jesse, many take Drabble's first novel (published before Byatt, the elder sister, ever published anything), "A Summer Bird Cage," as a huge slap in the face to Byatt on a VERY personal level. A.S. ..."

I was thinking about reading "The Peppered Moth" first, not because it was about their mother, so much, but because it was about genetics and the North of England. I still might start there, I don't know. All this drama just adds spice!

message 11: by Abby (new) - rated it 5 stars

Abby | 13 comments Annie, the character of Beatrice stood out to me more in this latest reading, as well. I'm glad you mentioned her. For the majority of the novel, she is pretty much universally dismissed by everyone as a keeper of a diary rather than a fastidious, passionate researcher of the home life of Randolph and Ellen Ash. She reminds me a lot of Ellen Ash herself, and even Blanche Glover.
We see several great female characters in this novel, and it seems to me as though they can be divided into two very distinct categories:
a) The forceful, powerful women who take action and risks: Christabel, Maud, Leonora
b) the passive, watchful women who, at least for a good portion of the book, exist as part of someone else's story: Ellen, Blanche, Val (within the same 2-page span, Blanche and Val both utter the sentence "I am a superfluous woman."), Beatrice, Lady Bailey (at Seal Court), Sabine (Christabel's French cousin)
and, now that I think about it, this is true of the men, as well. These roles end up changing for a good many of the characters. What I like is that, on some fundamental level, Byatt seems to have an inherent RESPECT for her characters, however meek or ridiculous they might seem. They are truly 3-dimensional. Sir George Bailey is gruff, suspicious, and threatens real violence against people who trespass, yet you understand why this is when he says at one point (maybe to Leonora?), "Poor fairy poet - let her rest in peace." He is also touchingly protective of his wife.
Beatrice Nest seems like a stereotypical sad old spinster until you realize that her knowledge of Ellen Ash's life is encyclopaedic; the picture of Randolph and Christabel's relationship and its effect on the people around them wouldn't have been anywhere near as clear without the clues she provides. She practically lights up when she realizes that Maud takes her seriously and genuinely values her opinions about the Ashes.
I'm so glad you're enjoying this book! Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it when you have finished...

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