Thursday, December 19, 2013

#69 - Possession by A.S. Byatt

This is a book I actually finished over two weeks ago. But after returning from Costa Rica, I got sick, which pushed everything back a couple of days, and then with Christmas and all, it's just a really busy time of year! But I have now finished 69 books from Time magazine list of 100 All-Time Novels. Soon to be 70, as I'm nearly finished American Pastoral as well.

This isn't the first time I've had difficulty deciding what I thought of a novel, but Possession might be one of the trickier books to pin down so far. For me it was kind of a tale of two novels, one of which I quite enjoyed, the other which I...didn't.

Roland Mitchell is a struggling postdoctoral research assistant, who's work centers around the fictional Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet. While working in the reading room at the London Library, Roland stumbles across some unpublished letters from Ash to an unknown lover.

Feeling that these letters could lead to something big, something that would shake the Victorian poets society to its foundation, something that would turn him from research assistant to bona fide professor, Roland pockets the letters and leaves the library.

His ensuing investigation leads him to Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte as the possible lover, and to Maud Bailey, one of the world's greatest living experts on LaMotte and her work. The two end up teaming up to uncover the truth behind Ash and LaMotte, all whilst trying to keep their work and their discoveries secret from numerous well funded Ash scholars.

Naturally, as they uncover more and more about the short, but intense affair between the two poets, their own romance is born. The book is actually titled, Possession: a romance, after all.

The book is sort of told from two perspectives, that of present day (1986) Roland and Maud's point of view, but also from the point of view of Ash and LaMotte, through a series (this may be an understatement) of letters, poems and notes they had written in the 1850's. In a way I suppose this book was reminiscent of The French Lieutenant's Woman, combining mid-nineteenth century characters with present day commentary.

I found myself quite interested in Roland and Maud's story, and found both of them to be interesting characters. But when the book would switch to the letters or poems from Ash or LaMotte, I was unable to sustain my interest. I understand these were important to the story and everything, but their length was usually too much for me. I wouldn't normally have any problem with an old letter being inserted into a story, but the ones in Possession were just too much.

Instead of the usual one or two page letter,  there would be 50 or 60 pages of letters, or 15 page poems. I was unable to read for more that ten minutes at a time without thinking of some mundane chore that needed doing. To make matters worse, it usually switched just as something rather exciting was happening for Roland and Maud. They'd be in the creaky attic of an old house, uncovering a dusty old tome of letters, and I wouldn't be able to turn the pages fast enough. But instead of giving me the synopsis of the letters, the chapter would end, and the next would begin with, 'Here is what they read:"

Then for 50 pages, I'd feel as if I was Roland's research assistant. Suddenly it was my job to analyze the letters and find the clues. This would cause my reading to slow, and my interest to wane, and next thing you knew, I hadn't touched the book for a week. Of course this only worsens the situation as it becomes increasingly difficult to read a book after such long breaks.

Having said all this, I didn't dislike Possession by any means. In fact quite the opposite, I enjoyed it, but it had so much potential to reach that next level. Instead it will probably be one of those books I didn't hate, but didn't love, and in two years, I'll have difficulty remembering anything about it. In fact I had a little trouble already, writing this review two weeks after the fact.

American Pastoral, #70, has my full attention, and dare I say, is one of my favorite reads so far. I should be able to finish it this weekend, but I do still have a little bit of shopping to do...

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