Still, quite diverting and entertaining, even if less accomplished than the dazzling Ex-Libris.


Artifice, portraiture, and gender confusion, these are the assiduously interwoven themes of a busy historical novel (originally published in England in 1995), the first written by the Canadian-born British author of Ex-Libris (2001) and the nonfiction Brunelleschi’s Dome (2000).

Set mostly in London and Milan in the 1700s, the story focuses on the central figure of aspiring young artist George Cautley, who narrates in retrospect (in 1812) the story of how his fortunes took an upward turn when he was hired to paint the portrait of Lady Petronella Beauclair, a suave aristocrat whose beauteous exterior concealed a world full of secrets. The Chinese-box structure, in which one story leads into and echoes another, efficiently reels us in. It’s the enigmatic Lady Beauclair who narrates the primary one (as part of her “payment” to the enthralled Cautley): that of Tristano, a castrato who had performed 50 years earlier in an opera troupe directed by George Frideric Handel. Cautley also makes the acquaintance of (and incurs a debt to) jaded fellow painter Sir Endymion Starker, to whom the younger artist becomes in effect apprenticed—and through whom Cautley encounters Starker’s “muse” (and victim) Eleanora Clitherow, the sinister Robert Hannah (who appears to be crucially involved with both Lady Beauclair and Eleanora), and hears further stories variously concerning all these people and others. King has researched the period with considerable skill, and he tells us a great deal—perhaps too much, rather too discursively—about the techniques of painting, the “South Sea Bubble” financial scandal (which has shaped several of its characters’ fates), and 18th-century society. Handel himself and Alexander Pope drop in briefly, and King’s lively style keeps everything moving right along. It all feels overcrowded, though, even in a fascinating dénouement that deftly ties up all loose ends.

Still, quite diverting and entertaining, even if less accomplished than the dazzling Ex-Libris.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-8027-3378-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2002

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

Did you like this book?

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

Reader Votes

  • Readers Vote
  • 10

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller


An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

Did you like this book?