Faux 18th-century novel tandem-written by American history professors Lepore (Harvard Univ.; New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, 2005, etc.) and Kamensky (Brandeis Univ.; The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America’s First Banking Collapse, 2008).
On the run from creditors in Edinburgh, Scottish portrait painter Stewart “Jamie” Jameson sets up shop in colonial Boston. His advertisement for an apprentice is answered by Fanny Easton, disguised as “Francis Weston.” The daughter of a prominent judge, Fanny/Francis fell from grace when her painting master got her pregnant. After the child was born dead (she thinks), her father disowned her, condemning her to the workhouse. But she’d learned something about art as well as dalliance from her teacher, and Jamie is struck by Weston’s talent. The duo earns renown as “face-painters,” numbering among their eager clients Samuel Bradstreet, an abolitionist and advocate for the cause of Liberty. When Bradstreet dies suddenly, the coroner determines that the cause was arsenic poisoning; Bradstreet’s slave Hannah, her daughter Phebe and husband Cicero are immediately suspected. Meanwhile, Jamie’s African friend Ignatius Alexander, an Oxford don turned fugitive slave, has surfaced and is hiding in the painter’s lodgings. After Cicero confesses to Bradstreet’s murder to save his wife and child, Alexander launches an inquiry to exculpate the slaves. The key is Bradstreet’s will, now missing, which frees Hannah and her child. Jamie, who bankrupted himself in Scotland to help Alexander, indebts himself further in the New World with a plan to send Weston to England to study with Joshua Reynolds. But his paternal attitude toward the boy is complicated by lust—which is puzzling, since like the rakes he’s supposed to resemble, Jamie’s heterosexuality is never in doubt. In an extended “explainer” scene, Alexander solves Bradstreet’s murder. The book veers vertiginously from Enlightenment-era satire to Lifetime-era family dysfunction in its humorless portrayal of Fanny’s villainous father.
Amid a welter of window-dressing and a surfeit of repartee, the story gets lost in an overzealous and ultimately vain effort to out-whack the wackiness of Shamela or Tristram Shandy.