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by Clare Clark
Hardcover : 512 pages
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London 1887. For Maribel Campbell Lowe, the beautiful bohemian wife of a maverick politician, it is the year to make something of herself. A self-proclaimed Chilean heiress educated in Paris, she is torn between poetry and the new art of photography. But it is soon plain that Maribel’s choices are not so simple. As her husband’s career hangs by a thread, her real past, and the family she abandoned, come back to haunt them both. When the notorious newspaper editor Alfred Webster begins to take an uncommon interest in Maribel, she fears he will not only destroy Edward’s career but both of their reputations. Inspired by the true story of a politician’s wife who lived a double life for decades, Beautiful Lies is set in a time that, fraught with economic uncertainty and tabloid scandal-mongering, uncannily presages our own.
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Discussion Questions1. Why do you think the author chose to open the story with a misdirect—in particular, a charade? What effect did this have on your reading experience? How does it set the tone for the story to come?
2. Why doesn’t Maribel believe in spirits or séances? What compels Charlotte to disagree and pursue the possibility? Given her skepticism, why do you think the so-called “spirit photograph” Maribel takes of Charlotte disturbs her so much? Why does she so steadfastly refuse to let Mr. Pigeon examine it? Discuss the role of spiritualism in the novel and the arguments made for and against its authenticity.
3. Several times in the novel, various characters express the sentiment that, “When there is nothing that can be done, and the knowledge that there is nothing that can be done is too much to bear, it is always better to do something.” How do the characters of Beautiful Lies prove this to be true? Who do you think would disagree with this concept and why?
4. Maribel and other Victorian photographers struggle to be recognized as artists in a world where general opinion holds that a camera captures only fact—that “art” is not part of the equation. It is this same belief, shared by the spiritualists Mr. Webster supports, that ultimately undoes him. How else is truth manipulated for personal ends in Beautiful Lies? Identify elements of the story that lend themselves as evidence one way or the other in the argument about the camera’s ability to capture only the reality before it.
5. When Edward suggests Maribel take another round of photographs of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Indians, she declines, calling them “players in a flagrantly fictionalized version of their lives,” to which Edward replies, “Aren’t we all?” (p.475) Explain what he means by this. Do you agree or disagree, and why? Is anyone in the novel just what they appear to be?
6. It is often said that history repeats itself. In her Author’s Note, Clare Clark draws several parallels between England in 1887 and England in 2012. Similar comparisons might be made between the novel’s events and socio-political climate and the United States today. Discuss these similarities. How have things changed, and how have they remained the same?
7. Throughout the novel, the question of truth’s relationship to beauty pops up in quotations (including the novel’s epigraph) and in conversation between characters. What do you think: Are truth and beauty one and the same, in the end? Is there a kind of truth to be found in beautiful lies? What makes a lie beautiful or ugly? Discuss the meaning of the book’s title, “Beautiful Lies” and its relation to the work itself.
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