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A Challenging But Satisfying Read
on May 25, 2013
I share some of the criticisms of "Transit of Venus" voiced by others but I stuck through to the end and felt my patience was rewarded. I was truly surprised by the climax and the closing scene, which led me to reassess the entire book. I still have some reservations but generally admire the compassion and intelligence behind this finely crafted novel by Shirley Hazzard.
I agree with others that the dialogue is cryptic and weighed down by too many obscure literary allusions. Whole conversations are conducted through metaphorical references to poetry or antiquity. It seemed overwritten and pretentious at times. A good editor should have reined that in. My bigger disappointment was with the passivity of the primary character, Caroline. I realize that she's our Venus stand-in, buffeted by love, but she was hard to get to know. Orphaned, adrift and with few friends, she only sparks when a man enters or re-enters her life. In many scenes, she's monosyllabic, uttering "Yes" or "No" as other characters - especially the men - expound at length. To the extent the author meant this as a critique of power relations between the sexes, it makes sense. Caroline's lack of agency reminded me of some of Edith Wharton's women who are trapped or defeated by forces beyond their control. Also like Wharton, Hazzard writes of her characters with detachment, which makes them hard to warm up to.
Among the things I enjoyed about "Transit of Venus" was its careful plotting. It covers three decades in the lives of multiple characters, which includes some lulls in action (like real life), but it heads toward a dramatic conclusion. Ironies abound and there is some sharp humor, including withering depictions of bosses and bureaucrats. In the end what stayed with me was its broad canvas of lives lived, love won and lost, the complicated trajectories of people's journeys. Its examination of relationships, whether exploitive, unrequited, ephemeral or enduring, whether parent-child, sibling or sexual, is rich and thought-provoking. It explores goodness and venality, love and death, lust, abandonment, idealism, deception, regret, infidelity and fate. So despite stylistic flaws, "The Transit of Venus" left me with much to ponder.