Author: Clare Clark
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1880s / UK / Marriage / Domestic Fiction / Skeletons in the Closet / Victoriana / Political Thriller / London / Socialism / Photography)
Publisher/Publication Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (9/18/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The exotic wife of a radical MP has to keep quiet the secrets of her past while honoring her desire for artistic exploration and recognition.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Victorian
Do I like the cover?: I luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurve it. I want a print of it. Might be my most favorite cover of the year so far.
I'm reminded of...: Jane Harris, Sadie Jones, Ami McKay
First line: The room was dark.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: I think this is going to be a 'buy' -- it's big, and chunky and needs to be savored, and I suspect might even be a reread for some! (It will be for me!)
Why did I get this book?: Because despite being a hist fic fan, I've somehow never read Clark yet!
Review: Words always fail when I'm really in love with a novel; a problem made worse when the novel in question is written in lush, lovely, dense, tangled, photographic, poetic prose. How do I compete?? Here's my try:
Set in the late 1880s, the novel follows Maribel Campbell Lowe, a stunning foreign beauty who smokes too much (in an era when only 'loose women' smoked!), is married to a radical Member of Parliament who supports socialism and reform, who yearns for the passion and inspiration that comes from an artistic life while performing her social obligations as an MP's wife.
Inspired by a real life couple, Robert Cunninghame Graham (who was the first socialist MP) and his wife Gabriela Cunninghame Graham, Clark's novel is hefty and rich, loaded with historical details about a Victorian London I'm unfamiliar with. Buffalo Bill Cody and his entourage are visiting, loaded with tons of gravel and rocks to replicate the Rocky Mountains in their performances. Queen Victoria's Jubilee is underway. The government and public are wrestling with suffrage, the right to assemble, the values they wish to embody -- and legalize -- while remaining safe.
Initially, I had a hard time getting into the book -- the novel opens with a game of charades, with our heroine and other side characters -- but within forty pages or so, I was hooked. Maribel has a secret, and I wanted to know what it was.
Clark's writing style is ... amazing. I'm prone to hyperbole, I know, and I'm pretty gushy in most of my reviews, so what do I mean by 'amazing'? The narrative is meaty, with flavor -- wry, sarcastic, dry, historical, detailed, emotional -- and the characters confusingly human. There's so much loaded into every sentence, but I wasn't aware of reading.
I was reminded of An Ideal Husband -- especially the lovely 1999 film version with Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett (those dresses and hairstyles, the clever repartee and layers of secrets!) -- and I admit it: I want this to be a BBC miniseries stat. Maribel moves in Wilde's circle, so the connection was likely intentional, and I'm sure there's numerous nods to literary and artistic influences of the era that I missed but others might see.
This is historical fiction for anyone who hates romantic historical novels -- there's a strong current of love here, but it's not a bodice ripper -- and those who enjoy savoring strong women, strong writing, strong setting will be very, very happy to dig in.
*** *** ***
I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Beautiful Lies to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only (sorry!). Ends 10/5. For another entry, check out my interview with Clare Clark.