By Historical Novel Society
In 1816 London, Ann St. Clair supports herself by writing gothic horror novels. Her cold, cruel mother had rejected her as a child, and her father had died before her birth. Remaining a spinster, Ann surrounds herself with other artistic types. The long war with France is over, Napoleon defeated, and ideas of a new world are discussed at the dinners held by Ann’s bookseller friend. Here she meets Robert James. James’s one claim to fame was a brief history called Attila, in which he tried to convince people of Attila’s heroism. The work is deemed brilliant and James a man of genius. His eloquent speeches entrance Ann, and she’s instantly smitten.
She and James begin an affair, but his passion and anger lead to rough treatment. He talks of the writing he’ll begin, but never starts. London isn’t good enough; he must go to Venice to kindle his creativity. Ann begs to go with him.
In Venice, prices are cheap, but it’s cold and damp. Ann’s obsession for James stilts her own writing. Their relationship is volatile, but she blames herself for stifling his genius. Ann is miserable and plots James’s death while still clinging to him. Then a strange German-looking man starts to follow her. Could he be her lost father, or something more sinister?
This is a novel about obsession and abuse, genius never realized, and one woman’s journey to discover her past and regain her future. The dark, twisting turns of the relationship shape Ann in ways she both hates and grows from. She can be contradictory in her thoughts, but her mind is beaten down. For an independent woman, she falls for this blustery man easily, but Todd’s elegant, psychologically dark prose kept me mesmerized.