Whistling Woman, by A.S. Byatt

I should have liked this fourth book about Byatt’s Potter family more than I did. After all, the main storyline, although still following Frederica who is not my favorite Potter, is about her life in London as a single parent, trying to work out what of her past to keep and what to throw overboard. These are issues which interest me and with which I have some familiarity.

I think what bothers me about Frederica in this book is how easy everything is for her. The husband who made her life a misery in the last book stays off-stage and causes her no further problems. Her old friends from Cambridge stick by her, finding her jobs and taking her about. She seems to have no financial worries. She’s found a perfect living situation, sharing a house (though they have separate apartments) with another single mother who not only becomes a friend but also helps her with child care and parenting advice.

Like the previous books, this one reflects its time period: the sour, scary trailing off of the 1960s into the twin ego trips of cults and pointlessly destructive protests. I call them ego trips because at their worst both are centered around a charismatic guru whose ego delights in the power he holds over his followers. These leaders, sometimes believing their own rhetoric, drinking their own Kool-Aid, prefigure today’s society where politicians and advertisers direct their appeals entirely to emotion, never to logic or reason, with distressingly effective results.

I was interested in the description of the early days at the BBC. The intentions we see here recall the early promise of television—the excellent dramas, the educational documentaries—to bring culture to all, not just the wealthy in their furs and top hats who have the money for season tickets to the opera and theatre, the education to want them, and the city townhouses close enough to access them.

I was also interested in how the main characters have changed from previous books. One of the great treats of a series like this is the extended length of time we spend with the characters, watching them develop across several decades of their lives. Bill, Frederica’s father and tyrant of her youth, has diminished as he ages, becoming less certain of his righteous anger, beginning to value even old enemies for their familiarity and common memories. Seeing Daniel, Alexander, Marcus and his two friends all mature in expected and unexpected ways makes me appreciate their individual paths and the tiny, almost unnoticed, choices that push us in one direction or another.

Frederica’s is meant to be the life most important to us, but she seems the weakest character to me. Byatt seems to waver between presenting her as the central character and making her transparent so we can see the age through her. Perhaps Frederica just seems too predictable to me. Perhaps it is just that I never particularly warmed to her as a character, and though she’s less abrasive than in the previous books, she still seems so privileged, making me less sympathetic to what she perceives as the great trials of her existence. In the first two books, I was far more interested in her sister and even in Marcus, their younger brother.

This is a familiar dynamic to me: in the few television dramas I watch, I can’t stand the main characters, but watch to see the development of the minor characters. I don’t know if it is because they are played by better actors or because, as minor characters, they are allowed more interesting quirks, but as a result, I prefer ensemble dramas. In these books, too, it is the ensemble that carries them for me. Also, even beyond the enjoyment of the stories themselves, they are cultural artifacts, sources future readers can consult to find out what it was like to live in certain places in England during these decades.

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