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A FATAL LIKENESS
by Lynn Shepherd
Delacorte, August 2013
363 pages
$26.00
ISBN: 0345532449


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This beautifully crafted historical novel is worth reading if for no other reason than its wonderfully developed pre-Victorian setting. Yet Lynn Shepherd brings so much more to her tale of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In fact, the poet's life was fraught with madness and mystery, and these elements have been raised a notch by the author, who has sought, through her imagination, to fill in some of the still-unknown gaps in the historical record.

That being said, there isn't any particular need to know anything about this time period nor Shelley and his wife Mary (author of Frankenstein) to enjoy the mystery at hand. This is a fully told tale completely enjoyable on its own. However, even a little bit of curiosity about the real life characters around whom this fictional tale is crafted will yield great reward. Just one example are the chapter headings and opening atmospherics of each. The chapter titles are titles of various Shelley poems, whose opening lines echo their verses.

As for the central mystery itself (just what are the descendants of Shelley trying to hide?), there's plenty of real life questions to build on. Shelley led a complicated life, with several wives and mistresses and an abundant number of children, who all seemed to die mysterious deaths. Place this in a setting where justice is permeable and nothing is clear, all heightened by (real or imaginary?) madness on the part of the poet and those around him, including his wife Mary Shelley, and there's more than enough material for several books.

The author teases out the details by using a recurring figure in her series, Charles Maddox, the early nineteenth century equivalent of a modern day private investigator. Called upon by the Shelley family to look into some undesirable private papers that have turned up for sale, he's tasked with helping the family decide if they are real or fake. Of course, that's just the pretense under which everyone is operating. There's a much more wily agenda going on just below the surface, both on the part of the family and the seller.

While in the beginning the book can be maddeningly obtuse, once the storyline becomes clear, readers will be well and truly invested in the book and its mysteries. Beyond that, there is plenty to think about, even post-read. This is a book that stays with you long after you put it down, or even more likely, sends you to the computer or library for more information on this strange and mysterious circle of historical figures.

Christine Zibas is a freelance writer and former director of publications for a Chicago nonprofit.

Reviewed by Christine Zibas, November 2013

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