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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-03-13 20:12
A. S. Byatt's Possession - Great, but not perfect
Possession - A.S. Byatt

I first read this book around 20 years ago, and I loved it then.  Reading it now, and knowing the ending, I enjoyed it even more.

 

But . . . .

 

It wasn't as perfect this time around as the first.  The diminution of my enjoyment wasn't due to knowing the ending but rather to knowing more -- much more -- about late 20th century literary criticism, especially late 20th century feminist literary criticism.

 

My undergraduate degree is in Women's Studies.  I had just gone back to college in 1998, and bought this book in the fall of that year or the spring of 1999.  At that point, I knew only enough about fem lit crit to be dangerous, but not enough to understand a lot of the nuances in Possession.

 

The writing is magnificent, and the plot intriguing.    Major spoilers ahead.

 

Scholar Roland Michell discovers a hitherto unknown draft of a letter by [fictitious] Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to an unknown woman.  Michell's research leads him to believe the letter was intended to go to another [fictitious] Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte.  Roland enlists the aid of Maud Bailey, another scholar of Victorian poets whose specialty is LaMotte.  They embark on a quest to find out if Ash and LaMotte had any connection, literary or otherwise.

 

Their first major discovery is a cache of letters between the two Victorians, letters that establish a connection and hint very strongly at an affair.  But they have no conclusive evidence, so now the quest takes on another aspect.

(spoiler show)

 

Despite their best efforts at secrecy, they can't keep all their knowledge from the outside world, particularly the very close world of scholars whose specialties are Ash and LaMotte.

 

Mortimer Cropper is the very wealthy, very arrogant American who keeps buying up everything related to Ash he can get his hands on, legally or otherwise, to stash in his precious Stant Collection at [fictitious] Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, New Mexico.  (For some fun, see https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Trivia/Possession)

 

Leonora Stern is another American, flamboyant, blatantly sexual, but sincerely interested in Christabel LaMotte.  Stern is more or less friends with Maud Bailey.

 

Beatrice Nest is a kind of pathetic, put-upon, insecure creature, who jealously guards her speciality, which is the diary of Randolph Ash's wife, Ellen.  Nest has been editing the diary/diaries her entire academic career.  She's nowhere near done.

 

Fergus Wolff is the handsome, sexy scholar who is a kind of rival, kind of friend to Roland.  Wolff once had an affair with Maud Bailey; she withdrew emotionally afterward.

 

James Blackadder is Roland's boss.  Blackadder is a foremost authority on Randolph Henry Ash in England; he just wishes he had Cropper's money to acquire all the goodies and keep them on their native soil.

 

Val (I've forgotten her last name!) is Roland's long-time girlfriend, flatmate, fuck buddy, and financial support, since he doesn't make much as a part-time tutor and researcher.  They sort of love each other, but they sort of don't, but both of them have a sense of obligation to each other.

 

Those are the main characters, and there are a few others who play important roles.

 

Most authors can give their various characters distinctive voices and personalities, but Byatt has taken it one gigantic step further.  She has included scads and scads of [fictitious] source material: Ash's poetry, LaMotte's poetry, their letters, Ellen Ash's diary, Blanche Glover's suicide note, LaMotte's cousin's diary (though not in the original French), excerpts from Cropper's published works, excerpts from discarded drafts of Blackadder's academic work, and more.

 

As Roland and Maud make one discovery after another, taking protective possession of their new-found knowledge, this reader was usually half a step ahead of them, sometimes more. 

 

Once you know that Ash and LaMotte had an affair and broke it off suddely, then apparently never had any contact again for almost 30 years, and there's no obvious explanation, well, the obvious presumption is . . . obvious.  So the nystery of why LaMotte left England to spend approximately a year with cousins in Brittany is hardly a mystery:  She was pregnant.

(spoiler show)

 

Despite their best attempts at secrecy, Roland and Maud know that they and their discoveries going to be . . . discovered.  Sure enough, Mortimer Cropper is hot on their trail in his big black Mercedes and his fat wad of cash.

 

And that's where Possession lost its perfect rating.

 

There are references to a box that Ellen Ash buried with Randolph, a box that may contain documents relative to the "mystery" of Randolph and Christabel.  The box wasn't opened when Ellen herself was buried a few years later, but now Cropper wants to know what's in it.  He petitions to have the grave opened, but there are legal difficulties, so he arranges to dig up the grave, in a remote country churchyard, in dead (pun intended) of night and steal the box.  He utilizes Randolph Henry Ash's heir (via another branch of the family, as Randolph and Ellen had no children) to provide some dubious legal cover.

 

And that's what I meant by the resemblance to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  All these main characters, and a few minor ones, converge on the country churchyard.  Cropper is foiled, the box is recovered and opened, and a few more secrets are revealed.

 

But it seemed so silly.  It seemed there could have been a more believable method of obtaining the box than anyone thinking they could dig up an almost 100-year-old grave, remove the box, then put everything back the way it was and no one would notice.  It was just too eye-rollingly dumb.

 

There was another reason why I just can't give this book a perfect rating: Byatt too often broke the fourth wall and did it too clumsily.

 

It's one thing to have an omniscient third-person viewpoint.  It's another thing entirely for the third-person narrator to even indirectly address the reader.  "But So-and-so didn't know that yet and wouldn't learn the truth for some time to come."  That sort of thing.  There were only a couple instances, but they were a couple too many.  Byatt had created this almost flawless world of Victorian literature and culture and history as well as its 20th century scholars, then destroyed it with these odd little stage asides.

 

The worst, however, was

 

 

After most of the important revelations have been made, there's one more:  Ellen Ash's apparent abhorrence of sex.  This information is revealed only to the reader, not to any of the other characters.  Both Ash and his wife took this secret with them to their graves and left no evidence of it.  I'm not sure why Byatt included it; it added nothing substantive to the story.  If it was justification for Ash's physical affair with LaMotte, it didn't work, at least not for me.  He continued, even during and after the affair, to profess his love for his wife.  Did it matter that she was "frigid"?  Could not her failure to conceive have been sufficient motivation for him?  Could not just human longing and attraction have been enough?

 

I saw in Byatt's depiction of Ellen's revulsion a reflection of the John Ruskin and Euphemia Gray marriage, which ended somewhat differently, in that they had the marriage annulled and Effie went on to a happy and rewarding -- eight children -- marriage with John Everett Millais.  What I didn't see was the necessity for it.  Had the information been revealed to Maud and Roland, it would have made a big difference.  Keeping it only for the reader created a distance from the text that make me uncomfortable.

 

(spoiler show)

Possession is a terrific novel, definitely worthy of the 1990 Booker Prize.  But it's not an easy novel to fully appreciate.

 

According to Wikipedia --

 

A. S. Byatt, in part, wrote Possession in response to John Fowles' novel The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969). In an essay in Byatt's nonfiction book, On Histories and Stories, she wrote:

Fowles has said that the nineteenth-century narrator was assuming the omniscience of a god. I think rather the opposite is the case—this kind of fictive narrator can creep closer to the feelings and inner life of characters—as well as providing a Greek chorus—than any first-person mimicry. In 'Possession' I used this kind of narrator deliberately three times in the historical narrative—always to tell what the historians and biographers of my fiction never discovered, always to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the world of the text.

 

While her intention may have been to heighten the reader's imaginative entry into the text, I found it just the opposite.  It reminded me even more firmly that I as a reader was completely outside the text, outside the action, outside the characters' whose stories were being told -- Randolph and Christabel, Roland and Maud.

 

Also for that reason, I took exception to the plot point that Ash never knew of Christabel's child.

 

Ellen knew -- because Christabel's companion and unconfirmed lover Blanche Glover had told her so.  And Christabel herself had given Ellen a letter to give to Ash with all the particulars, though Ellen never did so.  The one encounter between Ash and LaMotte after the affair and after the child's birth -- at a seance that Ash disrupted -- revealed to him that there had been a child, though not whether it still lived or not. 

 

The final scene of the book

is an encounter between Ash and the child herself, though supposedly he does not know who she is.  But he claims he knows her mother, and he knows very well where he is.  So he asks for a lock of her hair, which she then braids and gives him to put in his watch.  Her hair, like Christabel's and like Maud Bailey's, is distinctive, so distinctive that Ash must have known.

(spoiler show)

 

Though it's already been established that Maud Bailey is herself the descendant of that child, the assumption remains that Ash himself never knew.

 

I think he did.

 

 

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review 2018-12-08 04:20
Reading progress update: I've read 7%. And I can't read any more
Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Victorian Historical Romance - Tammy Andresen

(Prior reports linked at the end.)

 

I really tried.  I kept telling myself there would be a story, a romance, that I could read and review.  Somehow I would be able to set aside the problems and read the book.  But it's not going to happen.

 

Piper and her mother are set upon by thieves/kidnappers, but they are rescued by our caped hero, who turns out to be the Barrett Maddox, 6th Duke of Manchester.  What he's doing in Boston we don't know yet.

 

He rescues Piper, almost kisses her, then discovers she is with her mother.  He suggests/invites them to join him sailing to New York.

 

Here's where things about the writing just got really, really bad.

 

First, we don't know what an English Duke is doing in Boston.  Dukes have responsibilities that they can't just up and leave for extended periods of time.

 

Second, we learn that Piper's mother used to be "Lady Carolyn Vesser," but not how that title applied to her.  Is she an earl's daughter?  Why would she have left England and married an American in the 1830s?

 

Third, the original implication is that the duke is sailing on the same ship, the Maria, as Piper and her mother.  When Piper asks him where he is taking them,

 

“To the Maria.” He paused as his eyes drank her in again. “Although it’s an awful ship. I am travelling to New York as well, and you could both travel with me. You would, most assuredly, be safer.”

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 9). Kindle Edition.

 

A few pages later, however, we learn that he has led them -- distance not described -- to his own "boat."

 

“Lady Vesser, why don’t I send a note to the Maria that you will be travelling with us tonight? My boat is right here and I am sure you will be more comfortable.”

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 10). Kindle Edition.

 

Fourth, there are a couple references to Piper's cleavage.  She tries to cover it and Maddox's eyes travel to it.  I'm just not comfortable thinking that a well-bred young woman traveling from Boston to New York in 1854 would be wearing something that bares her bosom.  Even though it's May, the weather in the evening might be cool, and it almost certainly will be once they're at sea, so shouldn't she have some kind of cloak or cape or other covering?

 

Fifth, there is the matter of their luggage.  These two women are essentially moving to New York, so they have trunks.  TRUNKS.  Only one apiece?  Or more?  Oh, who knows?  The author isn't specific, and she just has the driver of the carriage pick up both trunks and carry them to the bottom of the gangplank to Maddox's "boat." 

 

Sixth, we get this nonsense about peerage titles, something that drives me up the ever-loving wall.

 

Piper and her mother are going to New York to visit (or live with?) Piper's cousin Sybil, who has already been referred to as "Lady Fairfield."

 

But now, in the company of the duke, Mrs. Baker says:

 

". . . Piper, I was girlhood friends with Mr. Maddox’s mother, Lady Priscilla Fairfield Maddox. Now the Duchess, of course."

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (pp. 11-12). Kindle Edition.

 

I thought I had misread something, but later on that same page, Piper replies to a question about having family in England:

 

“Yes, of course,” she replied. “Actually my cousin, Lady Sybil Fairfield, Viscountess of Abberforth, is waiting for us in New York.”

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 12). Kindle Edition.

 

The same family name????  And a viscount is never "of" something.  Viscount Abberforth would be the correct form.

 

Okay, that's bad enough.  But how is Sybil a viscountess?  She's already been described as being in desperate need of a husband, so we know she's not married to the viscount.  If she's the daughter of the viscount Abberforth, we know he's dead because that's already been established, too.

 

Her cousin, Sybil, also needed to marry but had yet to choose a suitor. A sigh escaped her lips to think of her cousin. Beautiful and titled, she supposed most women would be jealous of Sybil, but Piper knew the truth. After the death of her parents, Sybil felt weighed down with responsibility. She was having difficulty running the estate.

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 2). Kindle Edition.

 

If her father the viscount died without a male heir, the title would have gone to another male such as a nephew.  In the absence of a direct male heir, the title would have gone in abeyance or reverted to the crown.  The idea of Sybil, a young woman in America, being given a title in her own right is utterly implausible. 

 

And what is this business of running an estate?  In New York?  Rural New York, perhaps, but the implication is New York City, since Piper is counting on Sybil's ability to introduce her to New York society.

 

Furthermore, while Mrs. Baker may have given up her own title when she married an American, she would not not NOT have referred to His Grace the Duke of Manchester as "Mr. Maddox." Never, never, never.  If there is an explanation for this, it needs to come at the spot the event happens, not more pages into the book.

 

Once again, the point is to make the pages disappear so the reader is lost in the story, not wondering why there are all these unexplained anomalies.

 

Eighth -- the overall effect.

 

The pacing is completely off.  The opening scene does nothing to set the plot in motion; all it really does is raise questions.  When Piper and her mother go to the docks to board their ship, there's still not enough explanation.  And there's no description at all!  I don't know what Piper looks like.  I don't know what kind of night it is.  Warm?  Breezy?  How does the air smell in the harbor area?  We get some of Piper's reactions to being touched by the duke, but it's kind of silly description.  Her heart is pounding.  Something happens to her nerves.  It's beyond clichéd.

 

This is one of those books that might have a decent romance plot buried in the garbage, but it desperately needs competent editing.  It needs to be fleshed out with good description, reasonable background development, and for the love of Queen Victoria, some historical research!

 

DNF, because I refuse to waste any more time on this piece of crap.

 

 

 

 

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1816060/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-5

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1816007/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-4-i-m-not-sure-i-can-continue

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1815742/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-2

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1815727/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-2-not-a-dnf-yet-but-gettin-close

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1815343/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-4-out-of-232-pages

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1815065/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-3-out-of-232-pages

http://lindahilton.booklikes.com/post/1814988/reading-progress-update-i-ve-read-1-out-of-232-pages

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text 2018-12-07 05:17
Reading progress update: I've read 5%.
Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Victorian Historical Romance - Tammy Andresen

His dark hair was neatly tied back despite the struggle.

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 7). Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

“Where are you going in this section of town at this time of night?” his rough voice grated out.

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 7). Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

He quirked a small smile and Piper actually gasped.

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 7). Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

Yes.  One page. 

 

And I didn't even copy all the times and places their eyes -- hers as well as his -- went wandering off by themselves.

 

 

But it has 88 reviews on Amazon, and 83% of them are four and five stars.

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text 2018-12-07 01:00
Reading progress update: I've read 4%. I'm not sure I can continue
Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Victorian Historical Romance - Tammy Andresen

It has 88 reviews on Amazon, with a 4.3 star average.  A single one-star rating.  I didn't look at Goodreads.

 

Nearly every paragraph has me rolling my eyes. That's not the way to enjoy reading a book.

 

The ship Piper and her mother are to take from Boston to New York is berthed in a "questionable" neighborhood.  Hello?  Most docks in most harbors are not  located in fashionable areas.  This is just stupid writing.

 

Mr. Abbott doesn't accompany them - pretty suspicious in itself - when these two ladies are to board the vessel sailing at night.  Are they traveling through the city at night alone?  Ew, the guy is slime, but Piper and her mother should have known not to go along with this.  It's stupid.  Characters should not be stupid.

 

The carriage in which they are riding is set upon by ruffians.  In the middle of the city?  IN the harbor area?  Shouldn't there be some kind of law enforcement?  Even if the driver is in cahoots with the robbers, this is awfully brazen.

 

But never fear!  Along comes the caped rider on the great big horse, pulls two pistols from his felt and dispatches all the miscreants.

 

Oh, give me a fucking break!

 

It's not that this sort of drama isn't ever seen in historical romance.  It is, and frequently.  Sometimes it's done well.  This is not one of those times.

 

There's no set-up for this kind of cartoon rescue.  Piper's situation isn't developed sufficiently for her being in this kind of risk.  We still don't even know what she looks like!  The only information about her is that she's nineteen years old and apparently drop dead gorgeous because all the men are drooling after her.

 

Who is this Mr. Abbott?  Why is he so skeevy as to let the women ride out alone?  Supposedly he has "business" to take care of.  At night?  How are the ladies to get their luggage on the ship by themselves?

 

The lack of introductory action is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that the author could have used that exposition to give better background. 

 

And the reference to a "British accent" was a knockdown of two points.

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text 2018-12-06 19:30
Reading progress update: I've read 2%.
Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Victorian Historical Romance - Tammy Andresen

So I pick up the Kindle to start reading more and the first thing I read is this:

 

Piper’s opinion of Mr. Abbott did not improve as their carriage headed to the docks. First, this ship was in a rather questionable area of the city. Second, he had last-minute business and had left the two women to find their own way. He said he would join them on the boat.

Andresen, Tammy. Taming A Duke's Reckless Heart: Taming the Duke's Heart (Taming the Heart Book 1) (p. 4). Kindle Edition.

 

 

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