A. S. Byatt’s Possession: The Secret Love Lives of Dead Poets

Possession (1990), number 80 on the BBC book list, by A. S. Byatt is a literary thriller about academics.  White it has been highly acclaimed and even has status as a bestseller, I wondered if everybody could truly like or enjoy this book, or if only bibliophiles, English majors, and academics would be drawn to its charm.

possession cover

The premise is that Ph.D. student and research assistant Roland Michell finds some lost love letters of fictional and famous English poet Randolph Henry Ash to a woman not his wife.  Roland follows the research trail of some letter fragments, eventually figuring out to whom they were written.  He ends up collaborating with another academic, Maud Bailey, in chasing the leads to the mystery woman, another fictional poet named Christabel LaMotte.  It turns out that the two had an unknown love affair chronicled in their letters, which Roland and Maud find through some good fortune and knowledge of poetry.  See what I mean?  Could only an English major appreciate this sort of mystery?

While I was intrigued by this mystery and found myself excited to see what would happen next, I did find myself somewhat bored with the breaks in the narrative that shared the contents of the correspondence between the two poet lovers and the breaks that shared their poetry and prose.  There were long chapters with these materials, which I applaud Byatt for composing, but I also got bored with it and ended up skimming some of it.  If I hadn’t been interested in the academic mystery that required archival research, I may have stopped reading altogether.

As the narrative progressed, the stories of Roland and Maud and the two lover poets come together in a twist that reminded me of The Da Vinci Code’s premise.  I won’t ruin the plot for you, in case you’d like to read this 511-page novel, but rest assured that it is both corny and wonderful.  All of the loose ends tie up nicely in a twist that I did not expect from the beginning, but that I anticipated once the narrative took me close enough to it.

I enjoyed this novel.  I was gripped by it in certain places and also a little bored at times, but overall I am glad I read it.  I would recommend it to those of you who find yourselves intrigued by an academic/literary mystery thriller novel.  That description sounds ridiculous, but that is what this book is.

So of course it was a bestseller.  Those of us who read like this sort of thing.  If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll like this book.  And you’ll be in good company as a lover of books, literature, and the secret love lives of dead poets.

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55 thoughts on “A. S. Byatt’s Possession: The Secret Love Lives of Dead Poets

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      1. You’ve got me started on books about academics! I highly recommend Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing To Safety.” His descriptive powers are second only to those of Edith Wharton. I know you are familiar with Wharton, Emily, but her travelogues are worth reading. In the days when cameras were primitive, she described the places she visited and you would swear you were standing right there with her! She and Stegner are two of the greatest novelists this country has produced and are too often ignored in our tizzy to read the latest and most fashionable.

        1. I agree that Wharton and Stegner are among the finest American novelists we have! I love Stegner. Crossing to Safety actually wasn’t my favorite of his novels, but all of I his work is worth reading. Thanks for adding to the list of books about academics! 🙂 I haven’t read Straight Man, but I have read another by Russo and it was worth the read.

  1. I loved Possesion, but I read it as a University English Lit student, so I would fall into your category of people who will of course love it! It does get quite dense if I remember and I’m sure I skipped some of it too, but overall it’s an impressive achievement.

  2. “Possession” has been on my bookshelf, like, forever . . . and somehow I have never found the time to read it. Thanks for reminding me of it — I will have to give it a look.

    That reminds me of another best-selling literary/historical/mystery hybrid kind of book that’s been on my bookshelf forever as well. Which I also haven’t read: Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Time to get cracking, I guess.

    1. I read The Name of the Rose and absolutely hated it! I wonder, when it hear people raving about it, if I went back and read it now if my tastes have changed. Enjoy both of them!

      1. Is that the same Name of the Rose that became a movie with Sean Connery as an Inquisition-era monk detective? Loved the movie.

  3. I read this book in high school and hated it. I had the same thoughts as you about it dragging in parts but the language being beautiful. I wonder if I re-read it if I would like it more, but the first attempt was a little too painful to relive.

      1. I read that book last year and I really enjoyed it! I think it would have been hard to appreciate in high school. I think Possession was the same way; it was a little dense for a 16-year-old with boy problems on her brain!

  4. I have had this book on my list for quite a while. To me, the premise sounds wonderful, but it is good to be warned that there may be slow parts. If I ever get to this book, I’ll be ready for them!

  5. I’ve been wondering about this book! I read Byatt’s The Children’s Book (seduced by beautiful cover art no doubt) and felt kind of the same way you did reading this – at parts I was really into it, and then other times I was bored with it hoping things would pick up. I felt like the story had a lot of potential that it never really reached. I might hold off on this one for now!

  6. This book does sound interesting to me. I am a bibliophile and an academic. I love the love letters aspect too. There’s just something wonderful about reading other peoples’ love letters. Your review also reminds me a little bit of The People Of The Book by Geraldine Brooks, which traces the history of a particular book. It’s a little bit academic and a thriller and historical fiction based on a true story. I’m adding Possession to my list because I love this kind of thing regardless of the slow sections.

    1. It does sound like you would enjoy it. I do love a good archival find, and when I was looking at letters last semester, they weren’t love letters, but they were still pretty darn cool.

    1. I think this one is masked enough. It is more about fake historical figures than the happenings of history, so you might find it a little easier than a traditional historical novel.

  7. I’ve tried and failed with this book several times…your review makes me want to try again just to see what the twist is. Whether I will is another thing though!

  8. I read this book last year and I agree with your review. There were parts that were so intriguing, I couldn’t put it down, and there were parts that I skipped over (such as the poetry, which I thought rather self-indulgent, as if the author was saying, “Look at me, I could have been a famous poet too”). I thought the writing was beautiful, and despite the slower parts, it’s well worth reading.

    1. I’m glad you feel that it was worth reading. I think so too, even with the density. I hadn’t thought of the author “showing off” but hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it! I am sure somebody out there appreciated those parts even though I couldn’t. 🙂

  9. I’m so embarrassed to admit I didn’t like this one! I’m going to reread it sometime because I feel like I should love it. But, I don’t know. I found it tiresome and too pleased with itself. Plus, I’m a puss about infidelity in novels — it always bothers me and so I couldn’t swoon over LaMotte and Ash.

    1. I think you are totally entitled NOT to like it! Stick with that. Honestly, there were parts that I didn’t like either, and it sounds like a lot of the commenters felt the same way. Don’t discount your own reaction! 🙂

  10. Wasn’t this made into a movie starring Aaron Eckart and Gwenyth Paltrow? I thumbed through it once in a bookstore and remember thinking I’d love a literature based mystery, but the slow parts would make me put it down, so I haven’t read it. I remember the movie was slow too. Which is not to say either of them is bad; just that we consume our entertainment at a faster pace these days, so it’s hard to connect with long, slow passages.

    1. I agree. Slow isn’t bad. And yes, there is a movie and it was slow. I kind of liked it because of having read the book. I always like to see how the movie versions elide parts and make up others.

  11. I’ve watched the film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckert. One of the most boring I have ever watched! So I don’t doubt that the book it’s based on is, well, quite dull as well. Not all academic mysteries are this unexciting!

  12. I love this writer and while I haven’t read this book in particular ( it is on my list) I saw the movie— which is what led me to her books in the first place. See what the cross over of movies and books can do!

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