01/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
By A.S. Byatt
If you read every line of Victorian poetry in Possession, the 1990 novel by Byatt that won Britain's Booker Prize (and last year became a Gwyneth Paltrow
movie), then you're ready for A Whistling Woman, the final volume of her quartet about England in the '50s and '60s. But if, like many readers, you started to skip through the verse, be forewarned: Byatt remains prone to frequent displays of erudition on everything from psychology to snail neurons.
Frederica, who was a book-loving teen in 1978's The Virgin in the Garden
, is now a divorced mother and TV talk show host. Her search for trendy topics leads to a university conference disrupted by student radicals and to an embryonic New Age cult. Byatt comes closer than most novelists to getting the '60s right, the flower-power silliness as well as the serious ideas, but the price for her scholarship is a sometimes sagging narrative. (Knopf, $26)
BOTTOM LINE: Homework worth doing