When they were little girls, Cassandra and Julia played a game in which they entered an alternate world modeled on the landscapes of Arthurian romance. Now, the sisters are grown and have become hostile strangers--until a figure from their past, a man they once both loved and suffered over, reenters their lives. It is the skittish, snake-obsessed Simon who draws Julia and Cassandra into his charismatic orbit... and into menacing proximity to each other, their discarded selves, and the game that neither of them has completely forgotten.
At the start of the story, it seemed that Simon would be the snake who came between sisters Cassandra and Julia and ruined their relationship with each other, but then I realised that Simon had problems of his own and was in many ways just another piece in the Looking- Glass chess game whose moves and maps had been laid out long before his arrival. Oxford don Cassandra has spent her life trying to protect her own privacy and keep her little sister out, while Julia was desperate to be allowed in, but was careless with her sister's secrets.
When SImon comes back into their lives twenty years nearly twenty years after leaving to study snakes, it seems that they may be able to repair their relationship but then Julia ruins everything. Julia is a novelist who uses her husband and child as raw material for her best-selling novels and seems lacking in empathy, constantly having to ask her husband whether she is behaving badly, and asking another friend if she has written a wicked novel, when she should have realised herself that writing it was the ultimate betrayal. I prefer Cassandra but that is probably because she is the character most like me, as she isn't really any more likeable than Julia or SImon.
Byatt is not an overwrought author, and her prose can somtimes read a bit cold even when she is describing the most tragic of circumstances, but this isn't a complaint. Rather, it's refreshing not to be subjected to the rampant sensationalism substituting as emotional honesty that can be so easily found nowadays. More, she is a novelist of ideas and has the talent to weave these ideas into the fabric of the story itself rather than force the story into an ill-fitting box or, worse yet, simply overlay an idea onto an unrelated and hope nobody notices.
All in all, another fine book from an important author.
I'm not a huge Byatt follower (give me her estranged sister, Margaret Drabble, any day). But at her best, she's good.
Here... she ain't.
There's a problem with the dialogue and I notice she plays to her strengths at the start by keeping it to minimum, thank God.
She writes fairly well and most of her sentences can be understood but she's referencing works that elicit emotional responses. Le Morte Darthur gets me all teary eyed over some guy getting his brain pan cleaved. But it's not enough just to mention it. It doesn't impress me. And is that a ham fisted and abortive attempt at symbolism with the snakes? Don't make me laugh. Certainly don't make me cringe with sympathetic embarrassment at the pretentiousness of it all. The characters are pretentious because the author is.
Until half-way through the story, I really struggled to keep going; I just didn't care about the sisters. Then the action speeds up (or I wasn't interrupted as i was before - take your pick), and I finished in a whoosh.
Byatt won the Booker for a much later book, Possession, which even her sister claims is a great work. This one, not so much.