The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 15, 2012

Beautiful Lies

Have you read Clare Clark before? I hadn't, until I came across her new novel, Beautiful Lies.  It's set in London, in 1887, during the Diamond Jubilee before this one, a time of crushing economic problems and political upheaval, and tells the story of a fashionable young couple, Edward Campbell Lowe and his beautiful wife, Maribel.

We find out early on that Edward is handsome man who has been time as a gaucho in Argentina, a member of Parliament, a Socialist and an outlier in his party, a landowner concerned with the plight of working men and the poor, and that he has inherited an estate in Scotland, along with its debts. Maribel is beautiful and unconventional, {endlessly!} smoking cigarettes in public. She also experiments with poetry, and more unconventionally, with photography, taking pictures of the Indians in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and of prostitutes in London's parks.  It doesn't take long for us to find out there is a love-at-first-sight story that Edward has invented about how they met {'not for him, he was clear about that, but for the rest of them, who were foolish and would never understand'}, and then there is the truth.

Maribel thought of her beautiful Spanish mother, who had not existed until Maribel and Edward had invented her, and who, as the years passed, Maribel seemed more and more vividly to remember. In Madrid, when Edward took her away from the Calle de Leon, they had lain in bed in the afternoons in a small hotel near the railway station and imagined a third life for Maribel, not Peggy Bryant or Sylvia Wilde but Maria Isabel Constancia de la Flamandiere. The details of her new childhood were shaped in part by practical considerations -- she spoke good French and because of Victor, tolerable Spanish, and Chile, unlike France or Spain, was conveniently far away -- but also by the shape of things as she had always wished them, as they were meant to have been.

The truth is in two parts, or maybe three, all of which would bring an end to Edward's tenuous respectability and almost certainly to his career. {I did think that the revelations began to pile up a little too high, but not so much that I wanted to stop reading.} When Maribel meets Alfred Webster, the crusading publisher of the City Chronicle, her encounters with him, and one of her photographs, begin to change him from a supporter of Edward's political views to an enemy who may expose some of her secrets. Or so we might think.

I go back and forth a little on historical novels, but in the end I enjoyed this one.  I also think that Clare Clark did a much better job than some other writers of historical fiction are able to do in incorporating real people {Oscar Wilde, Buffalo Bill Cody} and actual political and historical events {the Wild West Show, the Bloody Sunday march to Trafalgar Square) into the novel; they are there as part of the story, not window-dressing.

Reading the Afterword {and I was glad this all came out after reading, not before} made things even more interesting.  As it turns out, Edward and Maribel are based on real people:  on Robert Cunninghame Graham, a Scottish aristocrat 'whose ancestors had long been radicals' and his Gabriela, whose story (not uncovered until a cache of family letters was found in 1985) was, like Maribel's, 'a complete fiction.'  Clark writes that she used parts of  Gabriela's true story and imagined others:  'The irony of imagining the life of a woman who imagined it for herself is not lost on me but Beautiful Lies, though based in truth, is fundamentally a work of fiction. Unhooking myself from the real Gabriela allowed my imagination to take flight.'


fleurfisher said...

I liked Clare Clark's last book - the name escapes me - but I couldn't quite love it. The story was fascinating but I couldn't get close to the characters. I'm glad you liked this one because I liked the sound of it, I was prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and it's lurking somewhere in my libray pile.

Audrey said...

Fleur, I think your first sentence captures how I really felt about this one. Neither Maribel or Edward (especially Edward) were people I quite liked... but the historic setting was very good.

Marie said...

this has been pretty popular at the bookstore lately. sounds really interesting!

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