Who are these people who populate the English town of Blesford and the pages of Antonia Byatt's fourth novel, "Still Life"? They're not like anybody in an American novel. There's Stephanie Potter, who takes her volumes of Wordsworth with her everywhere, and when she goes into labor with her first child, the delivery-room nurses won't let her have her books to read during childbirth, so she just recites in her own mind Wordsworth's "Immortality" ode -- the intellectual's epidural!
It's England and the 1950s, and life is sometimes hectic, sometimes still -- deeply still. Across the Atlantic, American families are indulging in postwar prosperity, pursuing leisure time, driving huge cars, purchasing televisions, acquiring Maytags and experimenting with convenience foods.
The Potter family, back in England, hasn't felt that plush surge. They ride bicycles past bombed-out buildings, are unencumbered by TV shows and are instead blessed with the bittersweet fruits of their own intellects for their entertainment. They're such a smartly complicated bunch, especially for the 1950s, years now notorious for their innocence.
But for all the Potter intellectual vigor, they are not English fuddy-duddies in soft-soled shoes. Oh, they sometimes ramble on about Milton or Shakespeare as easily as Americans did in those days about the Dodgers. But layers of romance and tragedy, sex, intrigue, infidelity, wanderlust, light and dark are beneath this family portrait.
It's difficult to say which member of the Potter family most shakes the paint off the wall. Probably Frederica, the second daughter of Winifred and Bill Potter. She has won a university scholarship, and with it comes a joyously cerebral and sexually active university life. She dabbles and delves, hangs out with philosophers, playwrights, poets and critics, discussing art, color theory and metaphor in conversations dripping with literary allusions. She falls in love, finally, with a man who's so smart, he's not really interested in anything below the neckline, but none of that stops Frederica from letting the object of her adoration drive her delightfully wacky.
Her sister, Stephanie, is the Wordsworth-toting maternity patient. She is just as knowledgeable as her sister but has chosen domesticity over the academy, married a clergyman and begun a family. Domestic bliss? Hardly. She is weighted down with children, a loving but bearish husband and an overweight, ignorant mother-in-law who comes to recuperate briefly from an ailment and -- as mothers-in-law so often do -- stays on and on and on.
Lurking about is Marcus, the only Potter son, who, having been involved intentionally or not in a homosexual skirmish, is now alienated from his parents and has become a walking wallflower in Stephanie's house and life.
How refreshing to have braininess -- not drugs, not incest -- be the problem that plagues a family; everyone thinks and analyzes and reads so much that it creates woes, but it's that keen, nuclear intelligence that gets the family through its perils, too. And they all still come together for a good meal or a good fight; philosophy never ruins anybody's appetite; literary allusions get put aside when it comes to dealing with some nasty small-town secrets.
It would be good to say that Byatt always makes these characters work as people, but she does not. Often a character's dialogue becomes so cerebral that it hops off the sound track. Never mind. These are failures only in the sense that they often do nothing to further the plot or develop the characters.
"Still Life" may seem too still for some; the pace is not American. But it is the kind of book that might cure those of us who make the obligatory race through a museum or frantically turn pages of some soft-bound book, seeing -- never thinking.