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on June 21, 2004
So why on earth would anyone want to read The Transit of Venus? Some say the writing is pretentious: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. That word came to mind last year while I was reading Shirley Hazzard's 2003 National Book Award winner, The Great Fire. Yet I couldn't stop reading. Since I wound up loving that book, I decided to try this one, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award more than two decades ago (1980). Midway through my reading transit, on June 8, 2004, a Transit of Venus occurred, the tiny planet moving like a dot across our gigantic sun. (In 1769, James Cook set sail in the H.M.S. Endeavor to study a Transit of Venus and found Australia, hence the tie-in with this novel, which is primarily an Australian woman's transit through love and life.)
Reading Shirley Hazzard is like climbing a mountain, agonizing over the rocks and rarified air during the long, arduous uphill climb. Struggle is not the same as suffer. Most modern books are downhill sloped, where the reader floats or speeds effortlessly toward a simplistic conclusion. A Hazzard novel is more vertically inclined, where one needs to stop on occasion to catch a breath, and then, when the climax comes, you are on a mountaintop, not the valley floor. It is not a transit intended for aliterates, much less illiterates. Hazzard might not be the author for you if you don't know, and don't care about, the meaning of words like "impercipience" and "abnegation." Also, if you're less than thrilled with such lines as "Magnanimity shaped a sad and vast perspective," and "My task, as I see it, is to adumbrate the sources of his entelechy," then you might want to move along to another bookshelf.
However, if you want to read one of the finest novels ever written, grab a dictionary, take your time and don't miss a single clue in The Transit of Venus, such as the one embedded insignificantly in the middle of the first page. The importance of which is revealed only near the end of the novel. Hazzard does that to you; if she tells you, almost as an aside, that a trivial character is going to die one day soon, it could later on grab you by the gut that the mention was a portent of an even greater tragedy.
Although The Transit of Venus is populated by several interesting characters, and is propelled by their sexual liaisons, the central story concerns the trio of Caroline (Caro) Bell, Ted Tice, and Paul Ivory and the mystery that directs, and warps, their relationship even into middle age. We're told right off that "Edmund Tice would take his own a northern city, and not for many years." The book never explains why, and does not need to, once the reading is done.
In the beginning, Caro, "established as a child of Venus," has come to England from Australia, along with her sister, Grace. Both sisters, orphans, are beautiful. While the "fair" Grace settles for a wealthy but unsatisfying married life, dark-haired Caro works for a time as a shopgirl and dallies with strategically-married Paul the gorgeous playwright, while Ted the astronomer can only simmer and settle for Caro's enduring friendship. When Caro marries a wealthy New Yorker, it seemingly dashes any hopes Ted may have for finally winning Caro's love. But in Caro's transit through life, such stability is not destined to last, and perhaps Ted has one last chance to possess the woman of his dreams.
As they move through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, we see a lot of the other characters, including Grace and Caro's half-sister, Dora, who seems to revel in misery, and Grace's husband, Christian Thrale, a government bureaucrat. Though interesting and well defined, these characters, and others, are largely irrelevant to the main plot, and I found whole chapters on them to be side rails that simply divert the reader temporarily off the central track. This does not mean the reading is not worthwhile; these diversions establish depth of character, and character exposition is one of Hazzard's strong points. A couple of my favorite lines compare a woman to her car parked outside: "Circular lamps, set over the mudguards, were glassily unlit like Tertia's eyes... Outside the window the car was kinder because suggestive of fluency and eventual animation." A cold woman, for sure.
Nevertheless, it is the Caro-Ted-Paul saga that leads to a revelation worthy, perhaps, of M. Night Shyamalan, and a "Sixth Sense" type of turnabout, one that makes you realize things are not quite what they seem. And it shifts the novel from a complex love story into another genre altogether. Any reader who fails to read the final three chapters misses out on the great reward; and to appreciate those chapters, you must read all the others related to these three main characters. Ironically, it is Ted, with his one disfigured eye, who is the most clear-eyed of them all when he thinks, "...the tragedy isn't that love doesn't last. The tragedy is the love that lasts." He also observes, "Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye... Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it." And with these sentiments, he opens up the novel's heart.
With so many one-or-more-books-per-year "celebrity author" tomes now afloat in the sea of modern publishing, where the term "author" too often takes the secondary dictionary meaning, "one who assumes responsibility for the content of a published text" (meaning, not the actual writer), isn't it of value to strive through a work that has the feel of complex authenticity? Here, in The Transit of Venus, we can be fairly certain this is the genuine voice of Shirley Hazzard. Isn't it worth the price of admission to read not just a rare and beautiful voice, but a true and honest one as well?
Take the Transit.
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on December 25, 2000
At first, your club's poor opinion of TRANSIT shocked me. Then I recalled that I'd recommended it to a friend who also ran a book club in NYC; her friends were not quite as dismissive as yours about the book, but they too found it difficult to understand. Without meaning in any way to deride your taste or that of your circle, I can only speculate that TRANSIT disappoints because modern eyes are less than eager to embrace its very different style. You call it 'affected'; yet I assure you that I can usually spot affectation before the cover opens, and Hazzard is in no way guilty of such. There is to me a beautiful and rare RHYTHM in her writing. It is musical and poetic in the best senses of those words, and readers largely accustomed to the fourth-grade syntax and tone of most modern popular novels will, I suppose, feel lost. As for its being 'unintelligible': my turn to be lost. The lives of two sisters are followed, and that's all. They're followed with exquisite attention and fatalistic power, but followed plainly.
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on April 16, 2004
Shirley Hazzard's "Transit" is a beautifully written story of the pain of ordinary life. Two orphaned sisters from Australia make their way to London to begin their adult lives, and a chance encounter in a theatre between Grace, the "blond pretty one," and her future husband irrevocably changes the lives of all of them. Grace and Caro have an innate dignity and intelligence that puzzles and attracts in the staid English society of the time, where they refuse to be pigeonholed into the category of the shabbily genteel. Grace's story is of the ordinary life--an unremarkable husband, children, home--yet her safe world is so easily shattered when she meets a young doctor caring for one of her children. Caro's world is one of passion and pain, as she (rather inexplicably) falls in love with the charismatic Paul Ivory, failing to realize how corrupt he really is.
The characters in this novel continue to puzzle me several weeks after I finished the book. Caro's intelligence and poise are at odds with her almost lifelong passion for Paul. This is especially hard to understand when one reaches the end of the novel--when Caro learns several shocking secrets about Paul, she admits she suspected some of them, which makes her love for him even more inexplicable. Hazzard also badly neglects the character of Adam, Caro's eventual husband.
On the other hand Hazzard is right on target with Cora, the half-sister who raises Grace and Caro and never gets over the burden she was required to assume. And Hazzard's handling of Christian Thrale, Grace's husband, is masterful--at the beginning he seems a nice enough, unassuming man, but as he becomes more successful in government Hazzard subtly reveals, through a casual remark, a brief thought of Grace's quickly suppressed, what an insufferable, pompous fool he's become.
Despite all, this novel threatens to end happily. I admit a happy ending may have been a letdown, but Hazzard's alternative feels like a quick escape. Did she not know how to wrap it up? Nevertheless, I stayed up halfway through the night to finish it. Despite its flaws this novel is worth your time.
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on June 21, 1998
Simply put, I have read THE TRANSIT OF VENUS many times over, and am always astonished to find new layers of meaning in this exquisite tapestry of a novel. Following two sisters from their Australian childhood through their lives in London, Hazzard is uncompromising and true to her tale. The style is unique; the episodes thrilling. Lovers, husbands, places and careers are set before these two women and before us, and even the most cameo appearance of a character or scene is rendered with the skill, reality and destiny-laden force given the heroines. Even when that destiny is tragically small. This is a novel on a par with the greatest of Eliot. From page one, Hazzard reveals a world where Fate and personal nature duel, often to the cold victory of the one and to pain for the other. But there is beauty in the pain we see; for us, and for these women we come to know so well. No one who cares about modern literature can afford to pass this by, and TRANSIT is more than deserving of the many fresh reads I intend to give it.
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on October 28, 2002
The Transit of Venus is the only novel I return to again and again through the years. When Shirley Hazzard writes the line, "Although the dissolution of love creates no heroes, the process itself requires heroism," it speaks not to the mind trying to follow a plot line, but to the depths of the heart and soul. Early on in the book there is a scene, that serves no essential purpose for advancing the plot. The two would-be lovers are on a bus. The bus doesn't lurch and they are not thrown together in an embrace. Not moved by fate, their orbits take them in different directions. It's a very subtle interaction, one that will surely be lost on the Harlequin crowd. This novel took seven years to write. It is one of the finest, most delicately constructed works of art, you will ever read.
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on February 15, 2004
Shirley Hazzard obviously has great literary gifts, but I nevertheless regard this novel as a failure. The characters are lifeless, one-dimensional and stereotyped, the plot slow-moving, and the language overly ornate. The most vibrant characterization is of Dora, the professional martyr, who raises her two younger sisters, (the protagonists), after they are orphaned. Hazzard captures the essence of a woman whose joy in life is complaint, and whose ultimate weapon is the suicide threat, but no other character is more than a paper doll, clothed in fancy phrases and incongrous metaphor. Most of all, this novel is about Shirley Hazzard. It screams "Look at me! I can write! I am wise! You will have to work if you want to decipher my meaning." But was it worth the time?
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on May 2, 1999
This is a beautifully written novel - when I finished reading it, I had to start over again. The first time I rushed through it, intrigued by the plot. The second time to relish the language.
It is a series of pleasures, combining an acuity of observation of human behaviour delivered with surprising, sometimes startling, similes and metaphors. While the content is not light-hearted, there is a warmth, humour and intelligence which comes through, so that the overall effect is positive.
I haven't enjoyed a read like that in a very long time.
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on April 10, 2000
This almost unbearably exquisite novel features shimmering, lapidary language; minutely observed, palpably real characters; joy and suffering in their purest, most elemental forms; and the mother of all revelations, about three-quarters of the way through. Hazzard's prose demands the complete concentration of even the most erudite reader, but it is a rewarding and even sensual experience to savor her sentences and paragraphs one by one.
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on July 5, 2000
It is hard to do justice to this masterful work. I finished it several days ago but the emotional images are still lingering. This is a wise, moving and many layered novel that absorbed my attention more than any book I have read in years. It is not a quick read, the style is somewhat formal, but the rewards are well worth the time investment. I expect to return to this book again and again over the years and I strongly recommend it for "readers" who find many books too shallow or light.
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on May 1, 1998
This book follows the lives of two sisters from their early twenties into and past middle age. The story is about the changes that occur in their lives -- the undercurrent is the change in their perspectives as they grow older. I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Ms. Hazzard's sentence structure takes some getting used to, but once I did it lended texture to the story. Would recommend to women who are past adolescence -- don't know if younger women would be able to appreciate it.
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