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'A Whistling Woman'

Byatt is whistling up the wrong tree

Sunday, February 09, 2003

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Harry Potter she's not.

There are no magic, no spells involved in the intellectual and moral education of Frederica Potter, the heroine of A.S. Byatt's quartet of books tracing England's uneasy transition from a tattered postwar power to a slick consumer nation. Begun 25 years ago in "The Virgin in the Garden," and carried through with "Still Life" (1985) and "Babel Tower" (1996), Byatt's thundering epic of ideas concludes -- with a resounding thud -- in this one.

"A Whistling Woman"

By A.S. Byatt

Knopf. $26.


But not for lack of effort. Or material.

If anything, Byatt's latest novel (her eighth) collapses under the weight of the author's ambitious intentions and overreaching vision. Multiple intertwining storylines -- usually spun gold in her capable hands -- become hazardous trip- wires, impeding the reader's attempts to follow the convoluted plot.

Unlike previous books in the series, which stood solidly alone, her new one requires Cliffs Notes in order to understand the relevance of relationships past and present.

When last we left Frederica in "Babel Tower," she had barely extricated herself from a disastrous marriage, fleeing with her son, Leo, to the safety of a modest London house and the mutual support of women friends.

The new book opens amid the social upheaval of 1968. Frederica, now well into her 30s, is scratching out a meager living teaching at a university and publishing her fragmentary writings, still hoping to write her great book.

Instead, she lucks into a plummy job as an interviewer for an avant-garde BBC talk show modeled after "Alice in Wonderland." Frederica dumps academia and becomes an Alice for the '60s, putting a psychedelic spin on topics from Doris Lessing to Tupperware.

The biggest problems confronting her are her lover, John Ottokar, who has accepted a teaching post in Yorkshire, and Leo's heartbreaking struggles with dyslexia. Having finally found a niche that allows her a decent salary and some visibility, Frederica must decide whether she should chuck it all and follow John.

As always, she has trouble making the distinction between hot sex and ho-hum love.

But that's just the Potter plot thread. There's also the continuing sexual confusion of her bookish scientist brother, Marcus, and the ongoing sadness of brother-in-law Daniel Orton, who has not yet recovered from her sister Stephanie's untimely death.

Looming larger than the Potters is the story of Josh Lamb, a mental patient turned cult leader with visions of blood and mayhem.

For the most part, Byatt's usual eloquence -- so brilliant in her last novel, "A Biographer's Tale" -- is crushed under so much jumbled, unresolved emotional baggage. But a glimpse of it comes mesmerizingly to the fore in the chapters devoted to Lamb, a victim of a heinous childhood which haunts him into adulthood.

Toss into the mix an annoying New Agey psychoanalyst, a vociferous bunch of malcontents bent on bringing down the university system and a cast of characters too numerous to keep straight, and the frustrating story collapses under the sheer weight of it all.

Why Byatt, after endowing her heroine with a rich and fertile history, brings Frederica to the brink of feminism and then abandons her is a mystery.

Is she saying that optimism and idealism died in the '60s? It seems we'll never know.

Betsy Kline can be reached at bkline@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1408.

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