Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark

Beautiful LiesI think part of the reason I picked up this book was because of the beautiful jacket.  The colors are gorgeous and the silhouette of the woman tells you without any other hint that this takes place in the last few decades of the 19th century. I know e-books are cheap and easy and convenient, but the impulse book buying process is much harder when there are no big glossy covers.

Beautiful Lies tells the story of a married woman, Maribel, in 1887 London, with (as the reader finds out) a lot to hide.  She is maneuvering her way through a restrictive society, in perpetually greater fear of being exposed.  She isn’t who she says she is, even uses a fake name, hides some things from her husband and everything from her friends and the rest of her acquaintance.

Upon starting the book, Maribel seemed like a totally normal married woman. I assumed all of the eponymous ‘lies’ would happen during the course of the action, but we find out after about 4 or 5 chapters that she has a lot that she’s hiding. Society knows her as an exotic woman from Chile with a mixed Spanish/French ethnicity, presumably an heiress since she’s snagged a Scottish Lord for a husband. To her husband, she is a prostitute he met at a brothel, and then fell in love with. He married her and brought her back under a new name.  The truth is that she is actually from Yorkshire, she ran away as a teenager in order to become an actress. She was seduced by a man who claimed he would help her get parts, she became pregnant, he sent her to a convent in Spain to have the baby and while she was in her ‘confinement’ as they called it, he got married to someone else.  I know, what a keeper! The baby was taken away, she doesn’t know by whom. Her husband knows she is actually from Yorkshire, but doesn’t know about the man or the baby.

Her past is never entirely explained, but is just patched together throughout the book. We do understand most of it at the end, but it never seems like a full story and more just snapshots from various times in her life.

There’s something very empathetic (to me personally) about a character who grows up only wanting to get out of the sheltered and dull setting of her adolescence.  To move to the big city and become someone and prove that she could.  To abandon a provincial and philistine family to try to become something greater.  And of course it doesn’t go very well, because society back then was not one that allowed social mobility, particularly for women.

I had two big problems with this book that seriously affected my final opinion of it.

1-The smoking.  There was tons of it.  Yes, I hate smoking and wish everyone in the entire world would just knock it off.  But usually I don’t mind if a character smokes.  This was different.  People didn’t just light a cigarette and keep on talking.  Every character that smokes is described in their passion and love for the feeling of smoke in their lungs.  Maribel is a chain-smoker, and every cigarette is described for 4-5 sentences, with long inhalations and the feeling of the smoke filling her all the way to the backs of her knees.  It’s tiring. You could cut 20 pages from this book if you took out the smoking references.  I learned to skim over them, but what a waste of ink. It made it difficult to like Maribel, and it made it really difficult to like the author.

The second problem is just…a bad execution of an interesting idea.  Clare Clark, the author, based this book on a true story.  She is a historian (or was, before she became an author) and came across the story of a Scottish noble, Sir Robert Cunninghame Graham and his exotic wife Gabriela.  His life very closely resembles that of Edward, Maribel’s husband in the book.  Long after they both died, a series of letters showed that Gabriela’s life was all a sham.  Like Maribel, she was from Yorkshire and had wanted to be an actress.

So this is a true story that has been somewhat shoehorned into the novel form.  Clark says in the end of the book that she started to change things about the character and that’s when it came alive for her as a story. Maribel is a photographer; Gabriela was a writer.  It doesn’t seem to me like she changed much else, but I’m sure she had to fill in the details.  But I think it doesn’t quite work as a novel.  If you read a story about the Grahams, the amazement comes from the truth in it.  If you read a novel, the amazement comes in the story.  Beautiful Lies seemed to try to exist between the two.  And it didn’t work for me.

I thought the characters–especially Maribel–lacked depth.  She reflected on her past and even when she was supposedly overcome with emotion there was a numbness there. She explained everything far too explicitly–if a reader doesn’t have to infer anything about the thoughts of the characters, half the fun of empathy is gone.  Maybe that is why secondary characters seemed more full. Their opinions had to be inferred, deduced by little actions and words. They were more human.  In a time and a society that taught people to hide 99% of their emotions, and to put on false faces for others, Maribel’s blank and complete descriptions of herself and her emotions are puzzling.  Especially considering all that she is hiding from everyone in the world. If you have to keep so much hidden inside you, then when you’re pouring it out into the head of a reader, it should have more emotion and it should be more necessary.  Even if the words we read are just inside Maribel’s head, that is at least one place where she can be herself.  It should feel as exhausting to us as it is to her, keeping this secret.

Clare Clark started out as a historian, but she’s been writing now for a few years.  Two of her other books have been long-listed for the Orange prize (now called the Women’s prize), so perhaps they are better.  Though reviews of this book have been quite good, so maybe it’s me.  The New York Times review called it “A captivating fable of truth and memory”.  Agree to disagree, I guess. I was not captivated and it took me quite a while to get through the book.

I’ve read a lot of books now that are written by people who began their careers as historians.  Sadly, I haven’t been very fond of the story telling present in any of them.  I think they all seem to value sticking in historical details and are terrified of violating the time period, and while that creates an authentic book it doesn’t create a great book. Even while I was reading it, I was thinking to myself ‘this is probably totally accurate. Buffalo Bill Cody probably did visit London at this time–he did–and this was the beginning of the Labour party and these Trafalgar Square demonstrations and riots all probably happened–they did’.  Unfortunately, I wish I had been saying something to myself about the character and what she was going through during the book.  But I wasn’t.

I wonder if they (the historians) are all going to skewer me when my historical fiction is done, and they will point out all of its ridiculous and inevitable anachronisms.  Regardless, for my part I think the art of storytelling is more important than getting the period details correct.

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