I really wanted to give this book more than 3 stars. I really did. It reminds me at once of Tolstoy (which is a great compliment as I feel that Tolstoy is one of the better unrecognized sociological minds of the 1800s) and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These characters are complex with interesting relationships between them (although I have some criticisms of that below), yet are all upperclass and related to the macro changes spinning around them as the Boer War ends and WWI begins. Overall I found the language (mostly) appealing, occasionally overblown, and frequently direct and officious. The stories were not really compelling as much as the setting provided a world in which I could eavesdrop (much like Fitzgerald). I wished for more of Olive's fantasy fiction, as I thought that her stories were lovely. Since this is the children's book it is about those who were children when it starts (in 1895), but there is still plenty said about (and by) their parents.
I was not sure I was comfortable with all of the duplicate stories. The Shrubbery is reminiscent of both Alice in Wonderland and Spiderwick (the stone that you look through to see fairies and such); Tom is (in fact) Peter Pan. There are no Spiderwick references (of course since that was written after this is set), but both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland are referenced. I guess it is okay to have this overlapping sense, but it also felt less than imaginative on Byatt's part to borrow so heavily from other children's stories. In a similar vein, the two summer camps that are held at Progress house are VERY reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural school (as Fludd is reminiscent of FLW)...again not sure how I feel about what could be arguably a lack of originality here.
I can't quite decide if this is a feminist novel or not. Byatt does seem to be poking fun at the suffragists a bit and certainly is not very complimentary with Hedda's (mis)adventure. Even her strong female characters (Dorothy and Griselda) eventually decide they need men (Phillip and Wolfgang). Elsie who is the most independent of them succumbs (as does Florence) to Herbert Methley's "charms" (as does Olive...and Phoebe even left her kids for him...what does this guy have other than some very male gravitas). Despite the overt proclamation that women should use their minds and THINK, all of her female characters end up ultimately in a domestic situation and certainly not profiting from their efforts at education. Humphrey is also the noted cad (and why does this not bother Olive exactly?) with not one, but three long term loves.
I can't completely criticize Byatt for leaving her female characters so unhappy because the boys don't turn out much better. Those who come back from the war aren't in great shape. Tom and Phillip provide a nice contrast (one starts with all the advantageous, but doesn't do much until he just commits suicide while the other has nothing and manages to find his way..but "he always knew what he wanted".
Another interesting pair is Tom with Benedict (such similar suicides...besides the obvious choice of water drowning, they are both abandoned by their incestual love). Benedict is (of course) the ultimate masoginist. As we move forward, his world (of which he is genius king) becomes shattered as he needs to share Imogen with Prosper. Tom is the boy who never grew up and ends with the ultimate temper tantrum (suicide to show mommy just how sad he is that she shared his story with the world). I really couldn't find it in me to like either character, although I know there are some who would.
I loved the discussion between the siblings when Hedda discovers that Humphrey and Violet have been lovers and that some of them are Violet's children. I was no nearly as convinced with the two Robins happily declared themselves brothers just before Robin O is killed. It just didn't ring true. Neither did all the pairing ups. The only two who EVER date or finds love outside of our (granted large) pool of main characters are Julian (with Gerald whom he subsequently dumps and goes back to Griselda a member of said pool) and Florence (who marries out of necessity to cover her illegitimate pregnancy).
Speaking of pregnancies, the cuckoo bird image was interesting and certainly apt (given all of the offspring who were inserted into an unsuspecting nest), but overall I thought it was a bit unbelievable. Violet and Olive happily share Humphrey not occasionally but for 15-30 years? Herbert Methley impregnates every young girl he comes across, but not Olive who has borne 5 kids and is obviously fertile or Pheobe who has also borne children (whom she misses and might want to replace)? I think Byatt was reaching for plot here and creating relationships that didn't need to be. Certainly there could have been lots of sexual escapades and they did make the novel more intriguing, but fewer pregnancies might have sat well with me on this one.
Overall it was worth reading and certainly in some parts educational (I did not know that much about the suffrage moment in Britain or how the build-up to their entrance to WWI).