The first novel in over 20 years by America's preeminent belletrist is a historical tour de force. This tale of 18th-century romance and revolution is certain to charm readers who enjoy the postmodern potboilers of Umberto Eco and A.S. Byatt. After a pretentious prologue about her role as author, Sontag dives into the grand drama of the English nobleman William Hamilton, ambassador to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, the Bourbon monarchy based in Naples. "Il Cavaliere," as he's called by his hosts, fancies himself "an envoy of decorum and reason" to the grotesque King. Where Sir William delights in collecting art and artifacts, and exploring the great volcano at Vesuvius, the fat King devotes himself to gluttony and impregnating his ambitious wife. After the Cavaliere's frail wife dies at age 44, the melancholic ambassador returns to England, where he grows infatuated with his nephew's mistress, a stunning beauty from the lower classes who mixes charm with vulgarity. Seeking a wealthy wife, the nephew passes his mistress to his uncle, now back in Naples. And soon follows a scandalous marriage between the 56-year- old ambassador and the 20-year-old lady of dubious virtue. A quick study, as well as a much-painted subject, Lady Emma Hamilton becomes the toast of Naples and the Queen's confidante. Her fall into infamy begins when she meets the hero of the age, Lord Nelson, "the saviour of the royalist cause." In outline, this seems little more than the Vivien Leigh melodrama That Hamilton Woman. But Sontag adds such historical texture to her saga of sexual intrigue that it all comes to sordid life, full of passion and politics. Her warts-and-all version of history relies on a profound imagining of each character's point of view. At once heady and heartfelt, this is Sontag's best bid for a popular audience.