Two middle-aged researchers discover romance as they strive to uncover the truth about Arthurian legend in this debut historical novel.
Donald is an archaeologist who's in a bad spot: He’s recently divorced, and his editor dislikes his manuscript on King Arthur for indulging in too much speculation and too little factual assertion. Julia is a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary who’s proud of her Welsh descent but increasingly concerned about what she’s learning about her husband’s and father’s involvement with violent Welsh separatists. That Donald and Julia will connect romantically is never in doubt—Pidgeon, a publishing executive, establishes their frustrations and compatibility early on, and he transparently nudges the narrative to put them together. Such manipulations are forgivable in historical romances—even the contrived boy-loses-girl plot turn is part of the genre’s essential mechanics. But the history in this novel is frustratingly plodding. The couple’s hunt for Arthur focuses on a short poem packed with secrets about the medieval king, and between Donald’s archaeological fussbudgetry and Julia’s linguistic obsessions, revelations that are intended to feel dramatic instead feel dry and academic. In particular scenes, Pidgeon can conjure up a warm, scholarly mood, entering wood-lined studies, pubs and Welsh landscapes while giving his characters poise and intelligence. (The book isn’t obviously set in the past, but Pidgeon has eliminated the intrusions of the Internet and cellphones from the story.) But his efforts to create a Possession-style blend of melodrama and literary intelligence falters at the sentence level, in paragraphs often clotted with actionless historical background, and at the level of characters, where nearly everybody surrounding Donald and Julia snap to stock roles as radicals, tweedy professors and bitter exes.
A disappointing example of how thorough research can hobble a novel.