The Children's Book

The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt I have read two other novels by Byatt, and I was excited about this one. It's about the Victorian era, and who doesn't love the Victorian era? It features a young, poor, but very talented potter who is discovered living in the back rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and an older woman who is a Fabian and writes children's stories of the kind that was very popular at the time (like Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland) and which we all grew up with. I was pretty sure I was going to love this book. Unfortunately, I couldn't find either a theme to unify the book for me or a main conflict to make it interesting. I am not sure if I failed as a reader or if this book just isn't as tight as it needs to be to keep one's interest for 675 pages. I expected it to evoke the type of children's literature that was popular at the time, but it turned out to be one of those books whose plot consists of a group of people experiencing a large amount of time (the "family saga" genre), and I rarely enjoy those. It had such a huge cast that I had to write down all the characters and how they are related to each other on a slip of paper and keep it with me while I read the book, and usually if there are that many characters in a book they are both hard to remember and hard to care about. If Byatt had picked one character or character pair to concentrate on, I would have liked this book so much more. I wish it had been about Philip's story, since he was the most compelling character.The book bogged down at the beginning of each chapter with exposition on real-life political and cultural developments, and I tended to skip over those. It seems like such a shame to reference all the lovable parts of Victorian culture — like creepy puppet shows, dreamy midsummer costume parties, back-to-the-land Utopianism, houses with ominous ancient names (Todefright), epic fairy tales, and a new fascination with museums — without making a lovable Victorian-style book. I had assumed that the children's book of the title would be crucial to the novel, that the author in the novel would change the lives of the children through her fiction, or balance their hard lives with fantasy, or at least give them insight. Secretly, I was hoping it would provide some magic realism, like the Cottingley Fairy photographs did. Instead, the titular story turned out to be completely powerless (except as a way to make money to support the author's husband's mistress and child), and, worse, it wasn't even published as a book!Ugh, what a disappointment. What is the point? Okay, the point is that everything good (including this novel) is destroyed by World War I, but I guess that's just not the book I wanted to read.