Monday, August 16, 2010

Book 85: The Children's Book

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

I kind of loved this book. I mean, there were a few parts I skimmed, and I was a bit skeptical at first about the characters, but I ended being completely drawn into the story and the people. It seemed like there were a bunch of books that came out last year that sounded incredibly interesting but I didn't want to buy them in hardcover, and now they are slowly starting to appear as paperbacks. I think half the reason I even wanted this novel to begin with was the original cover. It was just so pretty - that's a great shade of blue.

The novel begins when Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain discover that Philip Warren has been living in the South Kensington Museum, and making sketches of the artwork. Fortunately for him, they are rather well done sketches, so when the two boys bring the newly found boy to Major Prosper Cain, the Keeper of Precious Medals, and Olive Wellwood, a children's book author, who is visiting the museum for inspiration, he receives an invite to come home with the Wellwoods.

The novel then spends quite a bit of time introducing all the different characters that will play a part, which includes the large Wellwood family, Olive and Humphrey's clan, the other Wellwoods, Humphrey's brother Basil and wife Katharina, the potter Benedict Fludd and his family, to whom Philip who wants to make something will be apprenticed, some of their more socialist neighbors, and the Cains. At first, I found myself wondering who these people were, especially the Wellwoods, who seemed to live in a kind of fantasy world, having Midsummer parties with perfomances of Shakespeare, while debating socialism. It seemed rather unreal to me. Charles, one of Tom's cousins, begins early in life struggling with the fact that he comes from money but wants to help the poor and sees how it seems odd the way the rich have time to dabble in socialism and such as a hobby almost. Philip also doesn't enjoy this type of talk since he feels like they are talking about him, or how they want to see his past.

Since the descriptions of the novel had said that is spans from 1895 to the beginning of the First World War, I was starting to wonder how all that was going to work when I was three hundred pages in and still in 1895. However, Byatt makes time flow in a logical way once the reader has a grasp on all the characters. She didn't decide to just suddenly jump 20 years into the future as I feared she might.

There isn't a huge plot to this novel by any means. Family secrets are revealed as the novel progresses, but mostly, it just follows the children that attended the Midsummer party as they grow up, witness the end of the Victorian England, and transition into Edwardian England, and finally the War. The women/girls all struggle with what they want to do with their lives, feeling that they want something more than just marriage but having a hard time determining what their alternatives are. Dorothy Wellwood wants to become a doctor, for example, while her cousin Griselda enjoys studying but doesn't know what she hopes to accomplish with it. The boys/men also struggle to grow up and find themselves, Tom having an especially hard time with this.

It's a long novel, and occasionally, Byatt breaks up the narrative to give historical background, explaining her character's circumstances. These were the parts I occasionally found myself skimming because some of her background went on for almost a chapter. Still despite some minor weaknesses, I really liked this novel. However, I can definitely see where this would not be for everyone - it's a story of a family and their friends, and the dynamics between them as well as how the times change them, but there isn't a huge plot per se. I, however, while often shaking my head at some of these people, enjoyed temporarily witnessing the world they lived in.

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