How many of you know anything about the author Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein? Me, I knew next to nothing about her prior to this week; I’ve never even read Frankenstein. I can now say however, I know a significant amount about Ms. Shelley, her husband, her step-sister Claire, and their private torrid affairs. This is because I just finished A Fatal Likeness by Lynne Shepherd which, although a work of fiction, details many of the factual elements of Shelley’s life and relationships.
The blended (part truth, part fiction) history of Mary Shelley unfolds as our protagonist and detective, Maddox is immersed in a she-said he-said she-said case that has him confused and flip flopping back and forth in his estimations of who is telling him the truth. The overly controlling daughter-in-law of Mary hires him to investigate a woman who they believe may be holding documents regarding Mary that may prove unsavory to her reputation. They wish Maddox to determine whether this woman, Claire, actually has the documents. Soon it becomes quite obvious to Maddox that Mary, her son, and her daughter-in-law aren’t providing him with the full story and have been manipulating him all along. But Claire is far from completely honest herself. To complicate matters, while trying to sort out the truth Maddox learns of his own family’s ties to Mary and Claire and it’s these ties that eventually lead him to unravel the mystery of Mary’s past.
A Fatal Likeness is a fascinating read that expertly blends the historical record and Shepherd’s imaginings. She’s woven truth and fiction so convincingly that I can’t keep them distinct in my memory after finishing the book. Quite a testimony to her skill as a writer and yet quite the shame for Mary Shelley’s legacy as Shepard’s telling of her life would be nothing short of libel were Shelley still alive (odd caveat of our American legal system: since libel equals portraying a person or their actions in a character assassinating light against their protestations that such portrayal is inaccurate it’s impossible to libel the dead since a required element – the protest – is impossible). Shelley comes out of this novel as a very very bad girl.
The novel kept me engaged, pushed me to research Mary Shelley’s life while reading the novel in parallel, and has stoked my interest in actually reading Shelley’s work as well as Shepherd’s other novels.
A Fatal Likeness hits bookstores August 20th but you can pre-order it today from Amazon.com.