Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession: A Romance
"Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion.

Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize--the U.K.'s highest literary award--Possession is a gripping and compulsively readable novel. A.S. Byatt exquisitely renders a setting rich in detail and texture. Her lush imagery weaves together the dual worlds that appear throughout the novel--the worlds of the mind and the senses, of male and female, of darkness and light, of truth and imagination--into an enchanted and unforgettable tale of love and intrigue.
I like to keep my reading regime pretty diverse--a little bit of everything mixed in there. Years ago in Barnes and Noble, my mother handed me a copy of Possession, saying it sounded like something I might enjoy. Since then it kept getting shoved to the bottom of my TBR pile, and I kept hearing from others how amazing it was. While I didn’t love Possession the way I hoped to, I think it’s the perfect book to read with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon.

Possession is the story of two scholars who are pulled together because of a connection between the poets that each of them studies. If you find the world of academia tedious and frustrating, don’t read this book. Part of the reason I’ve chosen not to pursue a PhD is because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life dealing with the bureaucracy of academics, and I could have skipped those aspects of this novel. However, professors jostling and backstabbing to see who had the most power didn’t take up too much of this novel, so it didn’t spoil it entirely for me.

The romance between Roland and Maud was quiet and awkward. Roland is a bumbling professor type, not one to pull out suave comebacks and look neatly combed every day. I also found the love story between the two poets very engrossing, because their banter was so witty. Not only did Byatt’s beautiful writing shine through particularly in these love stories, I think she ended not only both of them but her novel as a whole on just the right notes.

Byatt’s novel had a few technical issues, such as too few dialogue tags, that made it a slightly slower read. At the end of the day, however, it proved to be worth it. Possession is both imaginative and beautiful, and the perfect story for any reader looking to be swept away in a lyrical romance.

Disclosure: I purchased a copy of this book.


  1. I've been meaning to read this for a very long time too. I guess I just need to set aside an afternoon or two and tackle it.

    I noticed that the book cover is drawn from the movie; have you seen it? I've heard it's pretty different from the book but I really like all the actors (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Jennifer Ehle have all been Austen characters and Aaron Eckhart just seems like a nice guy) so I enjoyed it.

  2. Yeah, this was a very slow read for me, but at the same time, I loved it. The movie version is pretty good, too. One of the few times that I think the movie works and didn't leave me really disappointed.

  3. Probably not a book I would pick up. But I always like hearing what people read and why they liked it or why they didn't. Thanks for posting. Maybe I'll watch the movie sometime instead!

  4. I love your description of reading on a rainy afternoon with a cup of tea. I definitely think I'd like this even if it is a bit slow.

  5. This is one of my favourite books, has been since I was about 15! I'm totally biased as not only do I love AS Byatt in general and find poets from the era in question somewhat mesmerising (even fictional ones!), but part of the end of the book happens on my birthday (as in my date of birth-day! Hurrah for the storm of October 15th!).
    Anyway, glad to see you enjoyed it!



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