After reading the two books about the Missing Women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I needed a break from darker subject matter and Life Mask by Emma Donoghue presented itself as a good choice. Seemingly this period drama would be an excellent relief.
The story revolves around three main characters whose lives and reputations become intertwined. Eliza Farren is a successful comedic actress who rose up the ranks and now desires to make strategic friendships in High Society (or the Beau Monde). Her connection with one of the highest ranking peers in the country, the Earl of Derby, will allow her to enter the most fashionable drawing rooms in the city. This alliance with such a powerful man is the subject of much speculation, and though Derby is clearly in love with the actress, her feelings for the married aristocrat are unclear. Derby pledges that when his unfaithful invalid wife passes away, he will propose marriage, but until such time, Eliza won't entertain the idea of becoming his mistress. At the beginning of the novel, their strictly platonic romance had gone on for six years, and no one in their social circles seems to understand it.
Once Eliza and Derby's situation is outlined, Anne Damer is introduced to the reader. She is a sculptress who was widowed over a decade previously when her scoundrel of a husband committed suicide. Due to her rank and financial circumstances, she is able to live alone in fashionable Mayfair and pursue her sculpture without answering to a spouse. She and Derby have a longstanding friendship and share political sensibilities, and a friendship blossoms between her and Eliza. Anne's love of independence makes her a lightning rod for controversy, and her tendency to be in the forefront of idle gossip often causes friction in her friendship with the actress. When rumours surface that there is a secret romance going on between Anne and Eliza, Eliza breaks off their relationship and retreats into hiding.
Now that I've set up the plot, will tell you what I really think of this book. I had a very hard time reading it at first, and often was on the brink of giving up, but somehow managed to persevere. I had difficulties both with the pace of the plot and the characters themselves. My issues with Eliza were numerous. I felt that she was grasping, self-important, and superficial and could not understand her relationship with Derby. She seemed to string him along without giving him any promises and not settling for the perfectly acceptable status of mistress. Though she claims that she does not want to suffer from the same fates of other actresses who become romantically involved with aristocrats, one gets the impression that this is snobbishness rather than self-preservation. The manner in which she ceases her friendship with Anne, also reinforces the idea that she is nothing more than a cold fish. Eliza does become more likable towards the end of the book, but my prejudice against her at that point was firmly in place.
In addition to my loathing of Eliza, I didn't enjoy the pacing of the book either. I don't possess a large amount of patience, and I was on the verge of giving up on it a few times. My interest in plot only started to peak after the 350 page mark, which is a long time to read in the hopes that the plot will take off. But, take off it did, and I read the remaining pages very quickly. Before the story sped up, I barely managed to stay engaged and I attribute this mostly to the overwhelming amount of details about the political situation in England. The references to the French Revolution were interesting, but the internal struggles of the Whig Party failed to captivate me. I felt the book was bogged down by the scenes between Derby and his Whig contemporaries, and though the main characters were all involved in Party matters, I found myself not caring about the political fate of the Whigs.
Though I won't reveal the plot lines that did allow me to continue to read, there is an incident which puts events into motion, and thus a story happens. This series of events is engaging, I just find myself resenting the amount of time that it took to get there.