Possession by A.S. Byatt

A Booker Prize winner from 1990, “Possession” is one of those books that I’d been meaning to read for a long time and never got around to. I finally did, and I’m glad. It’s the story of a young academic who makes a shocking discovery about the Victorian poet whom he studies, something that were it known would have a huge impact on the scholarship of that period.

So it’s a mystery novel, in a sense, in which he tries to figure out what really happened, tracing the story through letters and literature. His co-conspirator is a feminist whose own speciality is a little known woman Victorian poet. So it’s a romance as well, both set in the past and in the present.

The main problem I had with the book was that although it’s a great premise, the execution can be pretty boring at times. The central plot is interesting, with lots of humor surrounding the cutthroat nature of academia, as everyone tries to get in on the secret. The Victorian love affair was, for me, way too bogged down in the flowery language to be exciting. I found myself skipping over all the poems, skimming the letters, and hoping to get back to the present day. My internal editor was working overtime.

I really liked the character of Roland and the way his relationship with Maud unfolds. But even these two live so much in their own heads that they can’t make a move without analyzing everything to the nth degree. I mean, who does that? If that’s what it means to be an intellectual, they can have it. I’ll take real life (and unanalyzed passion) any day. To me it’s much more romantic. But I was glad that things worked out for the two of them.

My favorite part of the book came at the end, when the final secret is revealed. I would love to reprint the whole postscript here, because the writing is just so beautiful, but it would certainly spoil it for anyone who plans on reading it for themselves. So do.

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