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Life Mask (2004)
por Emma Donoghue
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As I read this book, the comments Jerry Seinfeld once made about his tv show came to mind: that it was "a show about nothing". This book is very similar in mood, tracing the lives of three main characters and the people surrounding them. Eliza Farren, the celebrated actress; Edward Smith-Stanley, Lord Derby, who was in love with Eliza but successfully held at arm's length for more than a decade; and Mrs. Anne Damer, a sculptor and mutual friend. Their intertwined lives and the scandals involving them are played out in London, against the backdrop of the French Revolution and the reign of George III. There is a great deal of politics, and that can be a bit confusing.
It's a long book and does have some very dry spots, but I enjoyed it. It gives a very clear picture of what life was like for the aristocracy in England during the late 18th century, and the confusion and fear overtaking them as social change became the main goal of government.
Oh, I love Emma Donoghue! This is historical fiction of the best kind -- actually based very closely on fact, using an impressive treasure trove of journals, letters, and biographies to flesh out historical figures with imagined details. The tale of two female friends in England in the late 1700s, rumored to have participated in a relationship barely imaginable at the time. There is a bit of drag towards the end, but overall the writing is fascinating. I have been recommending this book freely.
You'd think after plodding through [book:Slammerkin|44543] and forcing myself through every single page turn of [book:The Sealed Letter|1503626], I would have learned my lesson. But no. I kept reading rave reviews about Donoghue's works and convinced myself that I was the problem, that eventually I'd find a book of hers that I'd fall in love with.
If that book is out there, I'd love to find it. It certainly isn't this book, by any stretch of the imagination.
This book reads like an "actual" Victorian novel, and in that way it's interesting. Only, this book is in dire need of an editor, and, being written from a modern viewpoint, seems to lack all of the charm of a real Victorian novel. Donoghue is trying way too hard here and it shows. It's painful. I got about halfway through this book until I simply just could not take it any longer. Everything about this book is dull as dishwater.
I am loathe to compare Donoghue to [author:Sarah Waters|25334], but she and Waters tread similar territory with their books, so comparison is inevitable for the sake of pointing out this novel's flaws. Waters is just a better writer when it comes to historical fiction. Waters is an example of a writer who knows how to capture the essence of Victorian literature and setting. Maybe Waters is better because all of Victorian-setting books are original stories that are small (or in some cases, like [book:Affinity|72929], overt) homages to classical Victorian works/writers -- unlike Donoghue, who seems to love taking real life events and creating backstories for them.
It just doesn't work for me. It just goes on and on and on without any sort of end in sight. There's no thrill, no dramatics, no ANYTHING. None of the characters seem to have any sort of real self-awareness at all. And I could not take one more second of reading about romantic sentimentality about the French Revolution or the countless scenes of the privileged few stepping over poor people on their way to the next big event.
Maybe it's an accurate portrayal of Victorian life, but the problem is, Donoghue has nothing to SAY about it. And I think that's the biggest problem here, alongside a lack of real plot. Why did Donoghue write this novel? What's the point?
I don't think even Donoghue knows.
At first I was annoyed at how much insinuated detail there was: the author decided to avoid an info dump about the 1780s of London by making every other sentence serve as a vehicle for a passing remark on current events, manner explanations, or political tensions. It seemed a thin excuse that the protagonist we first meet is an up-and-coming actress who is trying to pass for a gentlewoman, and knows little of the inherent topics of well-bred conversation. Eliza's pretty darn good by the time we meet her, so not sure this passes.
Also, the first couple narrator switches had me confused, since the action is still jumping about on the exposition and the setting details, and I'd barely registered the names of the characters before we started head-hopping!
However, most of the story was fairly gripping: the politic of the age dealing with royal debts, royal madness, laws of property; the shifting lines of propriety and class identity; the fabric of female friendships; the inner strengths and outer masks worn by Eliza and Anne. Very well explored.
The ending was not extremely satisfying, and I felt a bit let down/ nonplussed by Anne's 'transformation'. Not sure I bought it as such. But, lots of interesting things to think about, and some funny buts and thrilling heartfelt moments, too.
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This is a gripping psychological thriller about a love affair that begins like all love affairs - in paradise. But this one ends definitely in hell.
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All of the main characters are real historical figures (yes, this is historical RPF), and Donoghue fleshes out the details from the historical record with fluid and imaginative details. These are nuanced and complex characters -- she does a great job of getting into the mindset of the era, letting even her most sympathetic characters express views that are appalling from a contemporary context. She does this with considerable subtlety -- never overtly passing judgment or providing an intrusive authorial presence.
Recommended for anyone who likes historical fiction or is interested in British theater or politics of the era, and for fans of Georgette Heyer. (Don't expect one of Heyer's neatly-resolved endings here, but do expect considerably more attention to queer themes.) ( )