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Marty Ambrose's historical-suspense-romance-mystery, CLAIRE'S LAST SECRET, published in 2018, proved a promising start to a series. Its heroine is Clara Mary Jane "Claire" Clairmont (1798-1879), stepsister of Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, lover of the celebrity Romantic poet Lord Byron, and inappropriately entangled in an eternally undefined manner with Mary's husband and Byron's friend and fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In Italy at the dawn of the Italian independence movement, to which Byron amateurishly contributed, he took his and Claire's five-year-old daughter Allegra away from her and committed her to a convent, there to be educated as a lady and in theory to overcome, via a convenient marriage, the social stigma of her illegitimate parentage. History says that Allegra died at the convent, at age five, devastating Claire. Ambrose's series says Allegra didn't. This was a lie, Claire learns in the first book. Allegra lived, and might still be alive.
With the help of dashing old friend Edward John Trelawny, dark, handsome Cornish hanger-on of poets and soldier of fortune, she might find her daughter. In the second book in the series, A SHADOWED FATE, an octogenarian Claire pursues this quest, chasing up old friends and enemies to find any scrap of information that might help her to locate her long-lost child—now, presumably, a woman in her sixties. At the same time, Claire investigates the mysterious death of her politically involved confessor priest, Father Gianni, and suffers a home break-in that costs her a valuable sketch of an Egyptian relic. Who might have wanted Gianni dead, and why? Who took the sketch, and for what purpose? And does any of this have anything to do with the fate of Allegra?
Via Claire's amateur sleuthing, Byron's lost-but-not-really-lost memoirs, and the stream-of-consciousness of four- or five-year-old Allegra, we learn that Byron feared for his life and that of his child, and came up with a plan to hide her. Where? How? And did it succeed? In this book, Claire doesn't answer any of these questions, but she finds potential clues—and the resolve to keep searching, no matter what.
As in the first book, some of the voices don't quite sound like their originals. Byron isn't terribly witty, literary, or R-rated—and neither, for that matter, is Claire, whose historical counterpart was all of those things. Allegra still sounds far more aware of adult realities than a toddler should, and in what language she cogitates (it probably should be Italian) remains unclear. Byron is frustratingly straight (he was bisexual) and secretly committed to Claire, in a small-r romantic way, for life. In reality, some of what he had to say about her, in writing, in his final years, is probably best left unprinted here, and his final love was a Greek page whom he met through his volunteering for the revolutionary army of the Western Peloponnesus in Greece's War of Independence. It's a shame that the book is mercenarily subtitled "A Lord Byron Mystery," because it really isn't. It's Claire's story, and little of the historical Byron pervades it.
However, many other biographical details are accurate—a wealth of them. Ambrose fleshes out some minor characters in the Romantics' circle in intriguing ways. They include Byron's smart, revolutionary mistress Teresa, Countess of Guiccioli; Byron's affectionate bear of a bodyguard, Tita; and Trelawny. Furthermore, Ambrose's suspenseful pacing and driven, feisty, no-nonsense octogenarian heroine make A SHADOWED FATE well worth reading. Knowing what really happened to each of the historical figures will not spoil the mystery, which ends, like Claire's first adventure, with a great cliffhanger.
In the end, this reviewer loved this book, far more than she thought she would. Why? Not for what it does with the myth of the Romantics. The names could all be changed and the story would remain compelling, because it cleaves to a different myth: an older, stronger, more urgent and frightening one—the myth of the mother who believes that her supposedly dead daughter might be alive, and that she, as her mother, can rescue her from the underworld, if only she is willing to venture there herself. Yes, the myth of Demeter and Persephone: the ancient Greek goddess who loses her daughter to Hades and brings her back to the land of the living—to some degree, anyway. Will Ambrose's Claire succeed in this epic quest? And at what cost to herself and to Allegra, should Allegra really be alive and well? Hopefully, the next book in the series will answer these questions—or at least string the reader along as well as A SHADOWED FATE does.
§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet
Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, March 2020
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