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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Shadow of the Sun - A. S. Byatt

Read for the 2011 TBR Lite Reading Challenge.

My previous reads of Byatt’s work have been of Possession, and her books of fairy tales – all later works. The Shadow of the Sun was her first novel, and while I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by the author, I wasn’t a big fan of this book.

The book was written when Byatt was an undergrad, and revised when she was a young mother, both in the 1960s. My edition (originally published in 1992) contains a modern forward by the author, and I’m glad it was there. It gave me a frame of reference I needed to be able to actually finish the book.

The book is the story of Anna Severell, teenage daughter of a famous British novelist. The story is in two parts – the summer that Anna is seventeen, and events that take place when friends of the family come to visit the Severell home that summer, and a second part when Anna has left home for Cambridge. Anna has always lived in the shadow of her father Henry, and she struggles to find her way to her own life. The initial summer story sows the seeds for the path Anna will take when she leaves home.

I’m a child of the last quarter of the 20th century. I’ve always taken for granted that I would go to college, get a job, and live my own life. If I were to marry, and have children, I’d be happy to do so, but that’s never been the be all, end all of my planned existence as a modern woman. I forget that my ability to feel this way is a fairly modern invention. I think what really bugged me about this book was the way that the three main female characters were defined by their relationship to Henry Severell, and how they seemed content with this definition. I could not find Anna to be a sympathetic character. Most of the time, I felt like yelling at her to get a life already, and leave her insufferable family. I can’t imagine being defined by my father in such a way, and letting that definition define my path as much as it defined Anna’s.

Still, this is a well written book, and would probably be interesting to Byatt fans. Read it as an artifact of a different age, and feel lucky that women have come so far.

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