Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Beautiful Lies.
Clark draws her inspiration for Beautiful Lies from real events and actual persons in 1887 London, a scene of political, social and economic upheaval. The Queen’s Jubilee Year is a time of recession, high unemployment, strikes, demonstrations, riots and homeless encampments—much like in 2012. As the wife of a member of Parliament, Edward Campbell Low, whose family also owns estates in Scotland, Maribel supports her husband’s efforts on behalf of social justice. Her real background is far different from the fiction she and Edward have created for public consumption: that she is the Chilean daughter of an English father and Spanish mother whom Edward met while abroad.
The truth lies closer to home. Maribel was born to a large family of low circumstances just outside London, her past far less reputable than anyone knows, especially the origins of her relationship with Edward. Now a poet and photographer, Maribel cultivates a wide circle of friends, her husband’s contacts including many important individuals. Her first meeting with radical editor Albert Webster of the Chronicle is one of immediate mutual attraction, but Webster’s inclinations as a moral crusader soon make clear the incompatibility of such a relationship.
As the political theater heats up, Edward is called to spend much of his time in committee meetings. A bored Maribel, left to her own devices, develops her talent as a photographer, advancing from the portraiture of friends to the faces of the suffering encountered on the streets of London and in Scotland on the family estate. As Webster’s inflammatory editorials create a serious threat to Edward’s future political career, Maribel is inspired to use her photographic skills in a manner she had never imagined, desperate to save her husband from the damage inflicted by Webster’s repetitive newspaper editorials. In a contest of wit and political expedience, Webster and Maribel come face to face with their ideological differences, the fiery Webster confronted by an equally impassioned Mrs. Edward Campbell Low: “Only the insane believe themselves always to be right.”
Clark’s passion for her idiosyncratic protagonist is clear, but this novel doesn’t have the emotional heft of the brilliant The Nature of Monsters. Maribel’s frivolous, comfortable lifestyle fails to deliver the dense texture and depth of character I have come to expect from this author. So many pressing political issues distract Edward that he is nearly relegated to a peripheral character, a background for his wife’s position in society, identity necessary to complete her machinations. It is she who carries the weight of the plot.
Frankly, as a character, Maribel does not sustain my interest. Her family-of-origin conflicts cause some moments of potential discomfort, but there is never any real threat to her position or income. Nor is she particularly noble. Pragmatic, to be sure, but ever conscious of her own needs. In spite of the rich historical details to augment a drafty plot (Bloody Sunday, the popularity of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show imported from America), Beautiful Lies is simply not memorable. It isn’t the writing that fails but the emotional context that leaves me cold.