A final volume in A.S. Byatt's quartet
A.S. Byatt's novel <I>Possession</I> assured her fame first when it won Britain's Booker Prize in 1990, and recently as a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Readers who met the author through that romantic mystery may be somewhat puzzled by <B>A Whistling Woman</B>, the final book in her quartet featuring the bright and brash Frederica Potter. Begun when Byatt was a young mother of four, the ambitious quartet looks at the ideas that have dominated British culture during a 20-year period and the effect those ideas have had upon women. Frederica first appeared as a bright 17-year-old Yorkshire girl in <I>The Virgin in the Garden</I>. She is now 33, a divorced mother with a young son. Having escaped a violent and ultimately degrading marriage, Frederica finds herself, through luck and talent, the moderator of a new television show about the interplay of ideas. This development is especially convenient, given the cultural focus of the quartet.
<B>A Whistling Woman</B> begins in 1968, reproducing in italicized type the final part of a fantasy story about three travelers. Frederica's friend Agatha Mond has been telling their children this tale a bit at a time and now brings it to an abrupt end. The children protest just as some feminist readers may protest Byatt's ending her series before the modern women's movement begins but both storytellers have reasons for ending their tales as they do.
Following the narrative in <B>A Whistling Woman</B> can, alas, be challenging. Byatt moves from the fantasy tale to scientists researching memory in snails, to an academician planning for a conference on Body and Mind, to a therapeutic community and the anti-university, and back again. An underlying theme for the decade is the mistrust of imposed authority. Byatt excels at creating vivid scenes of student protest, but her novel remains most agreeable when it concentrates on its characters and their individual stories.
Anne Morris writes from Austin, Texas.