There are few things better than a good neo-Victorian novel, so I was really looking forward to this book set in London in the 1880’s. I’d never read Clare Clark before, but I’d heard from patrons at the library that her novels are full of rich historical details. Beautiful Lies definitely had that, but I was left curiously puzzled by my indifference to the novel.

Maribel Campbell Lowe is a politician’s wife – a bored politician’s wife. Childless and uninterested in the pursuits of other women of her class, she spends her days drifting until she develops an interest in photography. Her husband, Edward, is a radical Scottish MP who makes quite a few enemies among his fellow politicians and captures the attention of the press. Maribel has secrets that would destroy not only her reputation, but her husband’s career if they ever came to light. When the intense and controversial newspaper editor Alfred Webster takes an unhealthy interest in her she begins to live her days with acute anxiety, waiting for the news that Webster has discovered and revealed the mysteries of her past.

Beautiful Lies is very slow-paced, almost too slow in some chapters. The story is told leisurely; the prose is very repressed and contained, just as Maribel seems to be. Clark does an excellent job of creating the sense of controlled panic that Maribel feels throughout the novel, but reading through this feeling was too much after a while – I think the novel could have been shorter and would have conveyed the suspense a bit better without wearing on the reader.

As we learn more about Maribel’s past and Edward’s struggles, a mournful tone settles on the story. The loss and sadness that both of them conceal has formed them into wary and watchful people, only trusting of each other and sometimes they can’t even count on that. I liked Maribel, but she is not a character that a reader can feel passionate about or connect with strongly because she is as aloof to us as she is to the other characters. The story is told from her viewpoint so we only see Edward through her eyes. I think he is a really intriguing character, devoted and courageous – I would have liked to have seen more of the events from his perspective.

The best thing about Beautiful Lies is the  fascinating historical details – the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show is in London during the duration of the novel and Buffalo Bill makes a cameo appearance. The political turmoil – the riots in Trafalgar Square, especially – is really interesting to read about. And so is the process of taking and developing photographs.

Beautiful Lies is not a bad novel, but it lacked the sparkling energy that memorable books nearly always hold for me. I enjoyed some of it, but as far as neo-Victorian novels go it was just mediocre.

Have you read Clare Clark?

10 Comments

  1. I think I can see why this didn’t work, a slow book that has quite a lot of mystery doesn’t sound the best combination. Apart from the aloofness the heroine sounds interesting however, spurning the stereotype is often so fun to read about, especially in Victorian-based fiction.

    • Maribel is an interesting character and quite unlike other Victorian heroines I’ve read about. She seems to be the ‘modern’ woman that was talked about in her day.

  2. I’ve read Savage Lands and had a similar response . The historical background and descriptive imagery was excellent but the characters never came alive in a way I could become emotionally connected to them. Don’t think I will be in a hurry to read Beautiful Lies.

  3. I love the cover – so atmospheric! I remember reading a review of this & thinking it sounded interesting but convoluted. I’m not sure how i feel about the inclusion of real-life characters in historical fiction – I know I don’t like the idea of Jane Austen in a mystery series!

    • The inclusion of real-life characters is very subtle – they aren’t major characters so it didn’t bother me at all. William Morris makes an appearance, too, and I actually wanted more of him than the couple of scenes he appears in!

  4. Miss Bibliophile

    Isn’t it disappointing when a book that seemingly has all the right elements to it doesn’t work out? The idea of a repressed, slowly simmering panic almost sounds a little bit Noir-ish to me, which I don’t usually associate with Victorian times. Maybe there was a disconnect between the style and the time period?

    • You know, I think you’re right, Lauren! I could definitely see the plot and characters working if the novel was set in the 30’s or 40’s.

  5. I love your phrase “sparkling energy.” Yes, that is a quality I like in the books I read. I will pass on this one, now that I’ve read your review. Thanks!

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