Like the waning days of the Victorian era so evocatively recalled in the novel, the central characters conceal a sordid stew of dishonesty and immorality beneath a veneer of respectability. Clark unravels their lies so skillfully and subtly that each revelation is more a silent stiletto through the ribs than a club over the head. To preserve their façades, the characters maintain a certain emotional distance from each other — and from readers, who may find it difficult to muster enough sympathy to navigate several blind alleys in order to reach the somewhat anticlimactic outcome.
Chilean heiress Maribel Campbell Lowe and her husband Edward, a gadfly Member of Parliament, enjoy a seemingly privileged, if slightly unconventional, life among the upper crust of late-Victorian London. Maribel’s work in the new medium of photography attracts the attention of a crusading newspaperman, whose thwarted fascination twists into a merciless determination to uncover the couple’s scandalous secrets and plunge them into ruin. (HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, Sep., 512 pp., $26.00)