Top positive review
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on September 8, 2003
Narrator George Cautley is an old man at the opening of this lush, dense story of 18th century London, King's first novel (written before his bestsellers, "Ex-Libris" and "Brunelleschi's Dome"). At a masquerade ball Cautley captures a young man's attention with the portrait miniature of a beautiful woman known as Lady Beauclair. Cautley offers to tell the boy his - and her - story, a tale of innocence and masquerade, deception, jealousy and corruption, that ends, Cautley says, with his becoming a murderer.
Cautley's narrative is actually two life histories, 50 years apart. His tale begins with his arrival in London in 1770 at age 17, and the second, Lady Beauclair's story of the operatic castrato Tristano, takes place 50 years earlier and is told to Cautley as Beauclair sits for her portrait. Yes, this becomes confusing, but the reader's disorientation is part of the fun, dovetailing playfully with King's themes of elusive identity, perception and deceptive appearance.
Cautley comes to London seeking his fortune as a portrait painter. The orphaned son of a country parson, he is earnest, naïve, clumsy, ambitious, and a bit of a prig. A potent combination. Taken by his rich friend Toppie to one of the masquerades so popular at the time, Cautley is relieved of what little money he has by a set of genial card sharps who gladly lend him more. His resulting insurmountable debt turns out to be his best luck, as the lender is none other than the man Cautley has been trying to meet, the famous portrait painter Sir Endymion Starker.
Later at the same party Cautley becomes disoriented by the numerous passageways, and is rescued by a glamorous costumed lady who bears a startling resemblance to a portrait he has just been admiring on the wall. Lady Beauclair invites Cautley to paint her portrait and hear the life story of the old man in the garden whose curious plight has caught Cautley's eye.
Beauclair's lodgings are in a decrepit, even dangerous part of town, but her rooms are elegant and her portrait costume most provocative. As her dress slips down her shoulder and the light from a single candle dances over her artfully painted face, she relates the sad, passionate story of the impoverished Italian boy who became one of the greatest singers in Italy in the 1720s. Cautley, entranced by Beauclair's aspect, ("the face that, as its vizard was removed, tallied in every point with my youthful standard of beauty") intimidated by her boldness, and in awe of her mystery, disregards some of the more doubtful elements of her allure.
Meanwhile, Cautley discharges his gambling debt to Starker, the great painter, by becoming his temporary apprentice. Starker has two studios - his big fashionable public address, where the rich come to have their portraits painted - and his secret, shabby bolt-hole where he keeps an angry mistress and paints his "true" art.
Beauclair takes Tristano toward his fate in the London opera houses, Cautley succumbs to a corrosive jealousy, and Starker reveals himself (in Cautley's judging eyes) to be a hypocrite in matters of love as well as art. Every straightforward drama and intrigue is draped and shadowed with mystery, illusion and doubt. Identities are obscured by costumes and masks, and motives are similarly cloaked. Much of the narrative takes place at the elaborate masquerades popular at the time (and 50 years earlier), where lords dressed like buxom serving maids or lusty soldiers and ladies wore the raiments of goddesses or shepherdesses. And those with real secrets wore dominos, the simple robe which hides form, figure and face.
King's writing is painterly. Paragraphs hurtle through teeming crowds and elaborate costumes and extravagant decadence as he immerses the reader in the period. There's fascinating detail on the lives of the castrati, the rigid demarcations of class, and attitudes toward art, music and morality, public and private. Hypocrisy and deception abound.
Though beautifully written, with an intriguing, suspenseful plot and vivid historical detail, the novel has a few minor plot flaws (why, for instance, would a prominent and wealthy painter bother fleecing an impoverished country bumpkin?) and a larger character flaw. Cautley, the naïf who becomes corrupted by his doubts, is not that likable to begin with and he diminishes through experience. Lady Beauclair is fascinating but ultimately unknowable and Tristano, barely glimpsed in the flesh, is more pawn than power. In other words, there are no heroes in King's elusive and colorful world. But it's a fascinating, evocative world and King's prose is pure pleasure.