Chevalier’s enormous hit with Vermeer and the 17th century (Girl With a Pearl Earring, 2000) is followed by a novel so familiar—the forces of change at 19th- century’s end put cracks in domestic life—that the hyperverisimilitude of its period-color seems almost done by number.
Things aren’t going so well in Kitty and Richard Coleman’s marriage, though by appearances all’s fine: they’re a respectable couple in London’s middle-high society, live in a fine house, keep maid and cook, and remind readers of the upstairs family in, well, Upstairs, Downstairs. But under the surface is what matters—fulfillment, self-expression, dynamism, sex—and that’s where Richard Coleman, though charming as fiancé, reveals himself to be old-fashioned, “ordinary,” even authoritarian as husband. When Kitty withdraws from him sexually, the germ of plot-trouble is sown—and would seem to be reaped when Kitty’s single fling brings her the need of a secret abortion that’s followed by long, deep depression and dire health. But really it’s just the start, for when Kitty discovers and then actively joins the Suffragists, her health and life are both transformed—though Richard grows only the more angry and disapproving at the folly and impropriety of it all. As events move toward a terrible end (there’s a vast Suffragist rally, a freak accident, two awful deaths) Chevalier proves herself ringmaster of the symbols she puts through their paces: the London cemetery, for example, that functions as social center (people stroll through to admire their families’ urns and angels), brings Kitty to her single-fling lover (he’s the graveyard manager), and provides a playground for young daughter Maude to meet her vain friend Lavinia, a kind of Becky Sharp of the past to Maude’s gradually emerging prototype of the educated woman of the future. All takes place between the death of Victoria and the death of Edward, time when one world was born, one died, and houses got electricity and phones.
Chevalier offers pleasures enough, indeed, though on an outing taken countless times before.