History: Published in 1978, it is the first of the trilogy about Fredrica Potter.
Plot: The book centers around the Potter family, mainly Fredrica Potter, her sister Stephanie, and brother Marcus and their interactions with intellectuals working in the school their hot tempered father taught at. Both Fredrica and Stephanie are in love with Alexander, a 50 ish handsome playwright, who has written a novel about Queen Elizabeth. Marcus is a semi autistic genious 14 yr old troubled boy. Lucas Simmons, his science teacher befriends him in a questionable way, and eventually falls in love with this teenager. Alexander is having an affair with Jenny, a married woman with a baby. Stephanie begins seeing Daniel, the minister of the school church, who is madly in love with her, and they eventually get married. A baby is expected, then the story of Stephanie is droned out to Fredrica, who is starring in Alexander’s play and they develop a weird sort of flirtation. Alexander does not want her because of her age, she is only 18. In the end, Lucas Simmons goes mad because of his tormented feelings about Marcus; Marcus in turn goes mad and ends up in a semi catatonic state, living with Daniel and Stephanie, and Fredrica goes off with her friend Wilkie and loses her virginity to him instead of Alexander, who is stood up and leaves town.
Review: A densely written novel that centers around a quirky English family during the time of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The book deals with lives of intellectuals and artists, the occult and spiritual, suffocating atmosphere of an academic village, gender dynamics and familial relationships. Byatt's characters rattle off quotes and allusions in just about every scene, but she rescues them from being mere voices of ideas by exposing their human weakness and imperfection. The portrait of the core family, besieged with problems, is utterly convincing. But she does this slowly, and the first of this three-part novel, filled with considerable background information, plods with lethargy. The ponderous pace is compounded by Byatt's habit of depicting scenes in minute details. Her power of observation is admirable, but the minutiae ultimately obscure the dramatic thread. Something must also be said about the novel's point of view: the change of focus character from chapter to chapter works well, but when this change occurs within a chapter, and often within a same paragraph, the effect can be disorienting. Byatt beautifully re-creates the half-hopeful, half-cynical atmosphere of those times. She gives us her characteristic juxtaposition of things cerebral and things visceral, obsession with Spencer, Racine, Ovid and sex. I loved her dry and the most unromantic vocabulary used for the love making scenes; probing, poking, and uneventful for the woman.
Opening Line: “She had invited Alexander, whether on the spur of the moment or with malice of forethought he did not know , to come and hear Flora Robeson do Queen Elizabeth at the National Portrait Gallery.”
Closing Line: “That was not an end, but since it went on for a considerable time, it was as good as a place to stop, as any.”
Quotes: “What makes us men is that we can think logically. What makes us human is that we sometimes choose not to.”