The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt

The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt

The Children’s Book spans the Victorian Era through the end of World War I and centers around the artistic Wellwood family and their friends.

Olive Wellwood, a popular author of children’s books, lives with her husband Humphry and her seven children in an idyllic cottage where the Wellwoods host Midsummer parties and meet with their artistic friends. On the surface, the Wellwoods seem like the perfect family, but as the novel unfolds, we learn that nothing is quite as it seems. The Wellwoods have many dark secrets, and when these are unveiled, the consequences are damaging for everyone. But Olive and Humphry are not the only ones in this situation, as their friends also seem to have a few skeletons in the closet: unwanted pregnancies, infidelities, illegitimate children and hidden pasts are only a few of them.

Even though the novel is called The Children’s Book and Olive Wellwood is an author of children’s books, this is not a book for children. It’s a novel about the relationship between adults and children, but it’s also a novel about art and creativity and the author skillfully shows us how this creativity and the need and passion to create can destroy both, adults and children.

The Children’s Book is a complex dark novel, which is hard to summarize, since it does not center on a main character, but rather focuses on a large cast of characters. The detailed book gives the reader a social, historical and cultural account of the Victorian and Edwardian Era and it draws a rather disturbing family portrait of that time. A. S. Byatt touches on various themes such as socialism, women’s suffrage, education, pottery and puppetry, but her novel also focuses on subjects such as sexuality and incest.

I have heard so many good things about this book in the past, therefore, I really wanted to read it. Unfortunately, I didn’t like it and I was very disappointed with this novel. I expected this book to be outstanding and in my opinion, it was not. I know that The Children’s Book has been greeted with praise by many critics and readers, but I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it. The author has introduced too many characters in her novel and thus, the reader easily becomes overwhelmed and cannot fully connect with them. Furthermore, the book contains too much background information on the characters and the author provides us with too much historical information and with too many comments on ideologies and political events. The Children’s Book is told in excessive detail and the author feels the need to describe everything to the reader, from clothing to meals and puppet shows, and thus, these descriptions detract from the story. I also didn’t like the themes presented in this book; I suppose I am too conservative, but there is too much talk about sex / sexuality / sexual desires in this novel. I disliked reading about subjects such as adultery, secret parentages, illegitimate children, pornographic pottery (which reveals acts of incest) and other bizarre things. All in all, I think that the book is too disturbing and sickening for my taste. I am sure that other readers will like this book and even think that it’s excellent and masterly, but in my opinion, its themes are too revolting and the novel is overloaded with information and focuses on too many characters.

I would like to thank Knopf Publishers for sending me a copy of this book.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kathleen
    Oct 10, 2009 @ 16:42:00

    I just read an interview with the author in the New York Times. She described having to keep an excel spreadsheet to keep track of all of her characters in the book. That made me pause for sure and now with your review I am thinking I will have to be in a special frame of mind to enjoy this one although I know I will want to read something that has garnered so much praise from the literary community!


  2. Darlene
    Oct 10, 2009 @ 17:06:05

    Sorry this one didn’t do it for you Andreea. I hope you’re next pick will be one that will sweep you away somewhere good.


  3. vivienne
    Oct 10, 2009 @ 17:50:47

    Sorry to hear that you didn’t like this one. I didn’t realise it had so much sexual content.


  4. Sandy
    Oct 10, 2009 @ 18:05:36

    I know this book has been all the talk, but you are not the first person to be disappointed with it. If an author needs a spreadsheet to keep track of characters, then I’m not sure it is for me either. Still, an excellent and honest review!


  5. ds
    Oct 10, 2009 @ 18:57:55

    Oh, I’m sorry you did not care for this one. I loved Possession so much and her other work as well; was really looking forward to this one, as most folks seemed to adore it. However, I will look at it more carefully–i’m not big on “pornographic pottery” either.
    Thank you for your thorough and honest review!


  6. Andreea
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 13:29:49

    Kathleen: It was indeed hard to keep track of all the characters and at times, I was confused. Still, read the book if you want to and form your own opinion:)

    Darlene: I really hope that the next book will be better:)

    Vivienne: I didn’t know about it either, but the book focuses on this theme and I didn’t like reading about it.

    Sandy: Thanks. I didn’t know that there were so many characters in this book and I also didn’t know that this book contained themes that I would dislike. I suppose I will be more alert while reading synopses.

    Ds: I also wanted to read Possession, but I am not sure about that now. Still, maybe I will read it in the future, since I like to give an author a second chance:)


  7. Melody
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 00:46:19

    I’m still not sure if I want to get this book. I’ve heard so many great things about this book, but then again I’m also intimidated by the thickness of it. ;P


  8. Jemima
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 17:43:36

    Thanks for your thoughts Andreea. You normally seem to pick books that you love, so this is a surprise. I am glad that you gave us all the details though, because I don’t think it is for me either. Maybe the author should have provided her character spreadsheet as an appendix in the book 🙂 I don’t like too many characters either. Dickens often had quite a large cast, but then they always tied in together in the end. Did this happen in The Children’s Book?


  9. savidgereads
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:47:19

    This is a massive massive book in more ways than just pages and sometimes sadly I felt it was a case of a very clever author showing off and being a little too clever, I do think that its wonderfully written, maybe a little alienating though.


  10. diane
    Oct 14, 2009 @ 23:41:01

    I am so looking forward to this book; great review.


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