I'm an English professor, so I love literary books, but this one about English professors is the epitome of everything that is wrong with my profession. There are a lot of people trying to become the guardians of "special knowledge" that they don't want others to discover or critique.
There are also a lot of people trying to examine literary works in microscopic detail. This literary criticism is described slowly and excruciatingly by Byatt and it's all the more uninteresting because it's based around fictional authors. Truthfully, in real life, the type of criticism she describes does three things:
1. Looks only at a small sample of the work that does not speak to the work itself, the genre, or the author (Usually called a "close study")
2. Excludes other themes or concerns to look at something small which only the critic thinks is important (for example, the female gaze as written in third-person narratives by octogenarian male authors in early Victorian England)
3. Takes all the joy out of reading
Unfortunately, this is encouraged in colleges today. It is something which I abhor, but which this author loves. I could maybe get past that if the pacing, plot, or characterization were better, but alas, they are not. This book is dull as well as pretentious. I tried to read it three times only to realize I was only 7 hours through and could not withstand the last 14 hours.
The one bright spot is the use of fairy tales throughout the text. Although also somewhat pretentious and written with an odd feminist slant, these were somewhat charming. I only wish that a better book could have built around them.
Although it was an interesting book, listening to it as an audiobook was a little too much for me. There were a lot of flowery language that got to be too much for me.
I am a stickler for narrators and this is well done. It's a little challenging of a story to follow with the timeline jumping from one century to the other but it's a beautiful book. Very dense, will be listening/reading a second time.
This puts a nice twist on the detective story. No murder here, but intrigue and excitement through missing documents, poems, and letters from dead poets.
My only complaint is the narrator gives a Deep South, Georgia, accent to a character from New Mexico.
I did not imagine that this premise could result in a story with an engaging and uncommon romance, characters that would engender pathos and suspense-filled scenarios! This was my first Byatt read, and I was absolutely floored by the range
EXASPERATING : I usually finish what I start to read, even if I don't like it. But with this book, I have really lost my patience after 12 hours of listening and decided to abandon it. So my critique is based on the first half of the novel.
BORING LYRICISM : Half of the text is written as poetry, poetical descriptions of the nature and scholastic considerations about literature. This mock poetry gets on your nerves : everything must be described in detail and with superlative adjectives, over an extended period of time.
PREDICTABLE PLOT : It should be a thriller, but the plot is very predictable.
NO LOVE IN THE AIR: It should be a double love story, but I could not feel the build up of the romance neither in the Victorian couple, nor in the academic couple. In fact, I could not understand what made the Victorian couple fall in love. They talk a lot about love, but they seem like an old couple adressing each other with "Dahling" and quite determined to end their affair after a weekend. Expect no Mr. Darcy.
FEMINIST STEREOTYPES : Feminism is stereotypical - poor female scholar or poet could not reach celebrity because of their sex.
POOR PERFORMANCE : I didn't like the narrator (Virginia Leishman) either. There are times in the dialogue when one cannot tell who's talking, she doesn't do different voices very well (unlike Juliet Stevenson). She has a way of pronouncing the sound "s" that's a bit annoying. Her intonation makes all the characters seem arrogant, phony and icy.
CONCLUSION : Despite an interesting description I was disappointed both by the novel itself and by its rendition. But mostly I did not like the book itself.