British journalist Eyre makes her fiction debut with the tale of a 17th-century beauty’s dangerous quest for eternal youth.
Venetia Stanley and her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, are actual historical figures, as are Antoon Van Dyck, Ben Jonson and a host of others from across the centuries who caper through Eyre’s postmodern mashup. Andy Warhol discerns unhappiness in Van Dyck’s portrait of the couple; supermodel Naomi Campbell is among those whose cautionary tales of disastrous beauty treatments lead Kenelm, deeply steeped in the mysteries of alchemy, to deny his beloved wife’s request that he mix her a potion to restore her youthful freshness. So instead she goes to Lancelot Choice, whose Viper Wine soon bleaches away her age spots and plumps up her skin. But the potion is dangerously addictive and leads Venetia to new treatments that leave her face grotesquely swollen, its muscles almost immobilized. The allusion to Botox is clearly intentional, as are a flock of ghostly comments heard by Kenelm toward the end that suggest women through the ages are obsessed with their looks. Dressing up this less-than-breathtaking insight with the jarring spectacle of Kenelm quoting David Bowie and Neil Armstrong is not very plausibly justified by the revelation that “to [Kenelm], time was circular, and alchemical Wisdom was a golden chain.” Eyre has clearly done a great deal of research, but it’s mostly employed in eye-crossingly dull passages detailing Kenelm’s esoteric studies. There are some sharply drawn characters, but too many of them are like the earthy Mary Tree, who strides into the story with promising vigor only to meander in and out of the increasingly self-indulgent narrative until she's finally shoehorned in one last time to make the author’s very obvious final point.
A promising idea swamped by the excesses of postmodernism: the random plundering of history and an irritating air of knowingness.