The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

There are times when you don’t get into a book as a reader and you can say that you don’t think much of it. I would think this is most often the case. Sometimes you can recognize that the problems you had with a book are personal and that many others will find the book wonderful. Still, at least there are reasons.

I’m a little more stymied when I think great things about the various aspects of a book, but just don’t end up getting into it much for reasons I can’t pin down. This unfortunately was the case for my reading of The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Roxana Robinson and 1st for Anita Shreve.)

The Transit of Venus follows two sisters (Caroline and Grace Bell) who come to England from Australia to be raised by an older sister after their parents are killed in a boat accident. The book intimately follows their lives: jobs, lovers, marriages, adulteries, betrayals, and all that. From the nineteen fifties to the eighties.

And the story is rich, complex, and moving. Grace marries the son of a prominent old astronomer who becomes important in government. Caroline is loved by an up and coming young astronomer, but falls for a rising playwright who is marrying the daughter of a lord. Both men have secrets:

“In the war, I helped a prisoner get away. A German. It was in Wales, where I spent a couple of years at a school when I was sent on from that place you saw today. A few miles inland from us there was a camp for prisoners of war, and we heard that an offices—a general, of course, the story went—had got out. There was a long stiff walk to the coast that I took sometimes, when I was let, to be alone and see the sea. The sea had a sort of prohibition on it at the time, the beaches forbidden and the barbed wire piled in hops and the gun emplacements thick as bath-houses. The ocean beyond looked like freedom. You couldn’t think it led to Ireland or America—it was infinity, like the firmament. The open sea. I was sixteen, wanting solitude more than anything else and miserable enough when I got it—except on those walks to the coast. And having only the school in my present and the army in my future. We were hardly ever allowed out on our own, yet in a year or two would be in battle, possibly dead. In fact, eighteen months later I was sent for the radar training, at the very end of the war….”Well, that’s almost all of it. I gave him my sandwich, and pullover. And a flask of awful stuff we called beef tea. The police themselves would have done much the same. It’s the not turning him in that makes the public outrage, but I didn’t even think of turning him in.”

Of course, the sisters end up with secrets of their own:

When Paul drove past the station and turned into the main road, Caro said nothing. Having Gathered himself for an effort of persuasion, he took his time before addressing new circumstances. In these moments, the girl’s stillness was such as to create, paradoxically, a bodily alteration.

“You knew I wasn’t going to London?”

She nodded.

“Wasn’t going to crop you off at your train?” He would not have exchanged for anything the suspense generated by her short nods. “And you knew why. When did you realize these things?”

“The night of the dinner.”

“You always know everything, then?”

She said, “I am inexperienced.”

“Something we must rectify.

As you can see from the above, there are some beautiful sentences in The Transit of Venus. It moves well emotionally and the storyline engages. I was well satisfied with the complexity and interactions in the storyline by the end. But still, I only got into the book so much. I’d read and think that’s nicely done, but that was about all.

I certainly can’t point to any defects. It’s a wonderfully written book. For whatever reason, The Transit of Venus just didn’t pull me that much. I hate to leave you with that…but it’s all I’ve got to give. I simply have no more.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how they absolutely adore The Transit of Venus. They seemed to freak out over it. I can understand respecting the fine writing inside, but I just didn’t freak out over it. Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled.

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