Posted by: Nathan | May 14, 2006

No Longer in “Possession”and a New Kind of Review

There are times in history when something new comes along that is so incredible, so original and yet makes so much sense that everyone wonders why squi didn’t think of it before. This blog post may be one of those moments, for this post is the first (as far as I know) Boovie or Mook review (if you preview one to the other, you know where to comment)! In this one post, I will review A.S. Byatt‘s romance Possession and the subsequent movie Possession.

The Book

J and I started Byatt’s novel at the strong suggestion of many, including a few in Bethel’s English Department, so we had high expectations. The book read long, and was beautiful at some points, but overall it disappointed us. The premise and the plot were both very good, but some of the characters, description, and composition led to its downfall.

The premise of the book is basically two parallel love stories. The first exists in the present (set in the 1980s) between two literary scholars, Roland and Maud; the plot unfolds as they investigate and find vestiges of a romance a century earlier between two Victorian authors, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, the two authors the scholars are studying respectively. It’s part romance, part literary criticism, and part mystery, with the lit crit being the worst part. Byatt actually invents Ash and Lamotte’s characters, poems, letters, and criticism; it’s quite an achievement. The idea I still believe is good and it is the most original part of the novel.

The main plot of the book is very gripping. Roland and Maud continue to stumble onto and then investigate a previously unknown romance between the Victorian authors by discovering love letters, links in poems, and other evidence. Byatt writes it so the reader is invested in both sets of lovers, and the Roland/Maud relationship is slow in developing but never overt or cliché (except at the end when they have sex, which was the singe worst sex paragraph I’ve ever read. Yech). The plot keeps the pages turning, and that’s what one wants in a novel.

However, a lot of the time when the pages are turned, the reader encounters other elements beside the plot, i.e. poems, criticism, letters, excerpts from other made up sources, and side plot. This is the most frustrating aspect of the book. I constantly wanted to hear about Roland/Maud and Ash/Lamotte, or at least read their love letters, but I found instead dragging poems of questionable worth or irritating characters I didn’t care about. The constant back and forth which can be so exciting when done well (cf. Tolkien’s The Two Towers) instead feels like smashing into a wall every other chapter but without the broken teeth.

The other characters I speak of who bother both J and me so much are Cropper, Blackadder, Val, Fergus and Lenora. They are (respectively) a rich Ash scholar, Roland’s boss, Roland’s girlfriend then ex, Maud’s ex, and a lesbian, Women’s Studies scholar from the U.S. Each is annoying, underdeveloped, pointless, or some dreadful combination. In the film, Val and Lenora are cut and one doesn’t miss them; this is a luminous detail. Cropper and Fergus are the villains, so they’re necessary, but the characters are lame not loathsome. Blackadder is just bland. I should mention that Beatrice Nest’s character is an exception–not flat at all but very personable. One enjoys her like one is interested in the main four characters. Overall, however, the side characters in this book don’t matter and just get in the way.

The last complaint I raise against the book is a critique of Byatt’s writing itself, especially her description. The author spends much time and verbiage describing places, objects, and people’s appearances as some authors are wont to do, but the reader can never see them. For example, she once uses a paragraph to describe Christabel’s hair, which is blond, as having a greenish tint. This idea is so absurd that she feels she must justify it by making allusions and comparisons, all of which left me wondering why she tried to make Christabel’s hair greenish anyway. She’s blond–‘nough said. This description forces the reader to read along to a story without visualizing what’s happening, which is always a poor proposition.

Overall, I give the book a C+ at 5.9/10 (J gives it a straight C). I don’t want to read it again, and I hope I don’t. I don’t suggest you do either.

The Movie

Possession the movie came out in 2002 and stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Ehle (played a great Elizabeth in P&P) and others. I won’t be as long-winded about the film as I was about the book because the movie doesn’t merit much comment.

It wasn’t awful. Much was changed from the book: the afore-mentioned cutting of unnecessary characters, Roland is made into a brash American (he’s a Brit in the book), and the plot was stripped of its richness. However, there wasn’t as much annoying poetry, and it’s always nice to see the English landscape whenever one can. Some of the visuals were neat, but the film never achieved a vision in its cinematography. It progressed rather than developed and then ended.

Watching Paltrow and Ehle is always a pleasure, and their takes on their characters actually made them a lot more sympathetic in J’s and my eyes. Jeremy Northam‘s Ash was well-done also. Aaron Eckhart brutalized Roland–he isn’t academic in the movie at all and he’s not likeable. Other characters aren’t worth mention.

I give the movie a 5/10 and a C-. However, I’d watch this film sooner than I’d read the book again because it doesn’t take nearly as long. I don’t really recommend the movie either. I don’t know if all of Byatt’s books are this bad, but I won’t find out any time soon.


  1. I believe it is Christabel’s hair that is greenish and not Maude’s.

  2. The wife and I saw the movie a year or so ago, but I don’t remember much more than the core plot. I don’t remember not enjoying the movie, but the fact that I don’t really remember any of the movie at all says almost as much.

    Excellent review though.

  3. My apologies for some technical error this post encountered today. The last part of it became illegible as the text font shrunk to unreasonable proportions. I’ve been told to reassure the general public it DEFINITELY WAS NOT AN NSA-SPONSORED TERRORIST VISION SCREENING. Whew. Now get that gun off my neck! I mean, that hypothetical gun…

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