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Intrigue, drama, and an infamous insurance scandal
on July 11, 2008
Bear with me for a moment, for a history refresher course for those who don't remember (or weren't acutely aware of) the scandal that hit famous British insurance agents Lloyd's of London back in the late 1980s. Lloyd's insurance policies (perhaps most famous to Americans for insuring unusual items such as Celine Dion's vocal cords and Tina Turner's legs) are underwritten primarily by a society of individual members (known as "Names"), who pool their sizable investments in the company, ideally to spread the risk and limit individual liability in the case of large claims.
For many, many years, being a Name at Lloyd's was considered akin to a risk-free investment, as members received sizeable annual returns on their considerable investments. In the late 1980s, however, primarily as a result of larger-than-expected claims from American workers stricken with asbestosis, Lloyd's Names were suddenly assessed huge amounts of money, to the extent that thousands of these formerly wealthy individuals declared bankruptcy.
Okay, enough with the history lesson. Fortunately, Penny Vincenzi's latest novel, which is set amidst a circle of Lloyd's Names during this crisis, is remarkably engrossing despite its fairly dry and complicated subject matter. Or, perhaps, not so remarkably, as readers familiar with Vincenzi's previous books have come to expect epic page-turners from this prolific British author. AN ABSOLUTE SCANDAL, likewise, will keep her audience gripped in the lives and loves of this small group of privileged but unfortunate investors.
There are the Beaumonts, Simon and Elizabeth, a well-off family with three children, from all appearances living the ideal British upper-class lifestyle, complete with private schools, a house in the country (complete with pony) and two fabulously successful careers. When Lloyd's starts to demand money, however, this financial pressure reveals some of the other cracks in the Beaumonts' façade, including Simon's infidelity and oldest daughter Annabel's misbehavior (and embarrassing career ambitions).
There are the Cowpers, Lucinda and Nigel, a young, attractive upper-class couple. Nigel is a bit stuffy and boring --- and a Name at Lloyd's. Lucinda is dissatisfied, bored --- and too eager to fall into the arms of a devastatingly handsome, exciting stranger. She longs to leave her husband, but Nigel's (morally and legally suspect) decision to transfer all of his financial holdings to Lucinda in the wake of the Lloyd's scandal threatens to tie Lucinda's hands --- for a while.
And there are the Fieldings, Debbie and Richard. Debbie is a bored housewife, resentful of her husband's wealthy mother, Flora, who has used her returns from Lloyd's to pay the private school tuition of Debbie and Richard's two children. As for Richard, he's a successful headmaster --- but when Flora's checks stop coming, he can't keep the family in the style to which they've become accustomed. Could the Lloyd's scandal be Debbie's chance to reignite her professional and personal ambitions?
The novel's prologue hints at a tragic outcome for one of the key players in this drama. But for the most part, barring the inevitable affairs, rumors, secrets and lies, the action of Vincenzi's latest marches confidently toward a more optimistic future than the one most of these Names envision when Lloyd's starts calling in the chips. Some fans will be surprised by the tighter focus and time frame of this book as opposed to some of her other multi-generational sagas. Vincenzi still has a knack, however, for drawing readers into her characters' personal and professional dramas, and making hours curled up under the duvet (or spread out on the beach blanket) pass by almost effortlessly as they lose themselves in other people's lives.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl