Few books have left me with such mixed reactions. The first half seemed to lack momentum, and it wasn't difficult to pin down why. Too much emphasis on the interior life of the eternally self-absorbed Olive Wellwood and her ceaseless and rather dull fairy tales. Rather too much fanciful description of the artistic impulse and, more specifically, much repetitive detail on pottery making. Plot often played second fiddle to didactic social historical analysis. And with such a large cast of characters, many are given rather short shrift and potentially dramatic situations bypassed in a sentence or two - for instance, Humphry's ongoing affair with Olive's sister, Violet.
By the second half things began to pick up. We leave the older characters behind, which is a blessing since most of them were frankly odious - only Prosper Cain and Anselm Stern offering a counterbalance to the glut of conscienceless, philandering males. As the Victorian era gives way to the Edwardian, we move into a period of restless social change and emerging feminism that gives an added dynamism to the lives of the younger generation, and generally they acquit themselves with far more wisdom and integrity than their parents. Of course, you can see where it's all going to end - in the mud and trenches of the Great War - but this adds poignancy to their youthful idealism and their struggles to establish themselves in a rapidly changing world. History, as we know, is about to overtake them. And the inevitable denouement was indeed moving, with its rash of dreaded letters and longed-for reunions.
Byatt demonstrates many qualities of a great novelist. She is a consummate social historian, and a master of characterisation - you never fail to believe in her creations as real people. She is an able wordsmith, and a profound thinker in this hugely ambitious, panoramic novel, lingering on larger themes like love and compromise, maturity, selfishness and loss.
But though moved to tears towards the end, I felt this was a deeply flawed book. On reflection, what was really lacking was not a good writer, but a good - and brave - editor. There is a great deal of repetition - we are frequently told the same thing several times, as if Byatt had forgotten that she'd said it already, or had thought that we needed reminding. (For instance, we are told no less than three times throughout the book that Olive was not particularly engaged with the suffrage movement.) Then there are the recurring and somewhat inexplicable mentions of the `beautiful' Rupert Brookes, which along with the frequent references to Oscar Wilde and William Morris gives a feel of some kind of historical name-dropping. While it's perhaps understandable, with a work of this size, that Byatt might lose track of what she has written before and replicate some of it, it is much less forgivable that her editor failed to pick it up and ask her to revise.
Also a more ruthless editor might also have persuaded Byatt to excise those tedious fairy tales. This is not actually a children's book. We don't really want page after page about lost shadows or little people or loblollies or whatever. When the repellent Olive herself describes them as `interminable worms,' I had to laugh at the aptness of her description.
I also agree with other reviewers that the end was rather badly done. After so much focus on Olive at the beginning of the novel, she is all but forgotten at the end. Ditto Philip Warren - interest in him just seems to peter out - though at least he is allowed to survive. Characters are abandoned as if their role in the novel had merely been a cameo. In life, loose ends are a fact; in literature they are something far more unsatisfying. It all feels as if Byatt had simply run out of steam, or finally exceeded her own word count.
I left the book feeling both admiring and a little sad. Admiring, because there is so much here that is truly wonderful. Sad because the novel, allowed to hit the bookstands without the judicious editing it needed, fell just short of the greatness it deserved.