I loved this book.
How to describe it? There's a certain amount of dogmatic debate in the Amazon reviews about whether it's a "novel" at all, the reason being it's structured as seven individual stories which echo each other, the first six of which resonate through the seventh, not in a tying-up-loose-ends sort of way, more as a thematic denouement which is satisfying and enthralling. Each story is built around a picture of a woman reading a book, beginning in 14th century Siena and ending, with the seventh tale, in a near-future world where people live both in the real world and in the "mesh", which is the writer's own take on cyberspace.
That's essentially the structure, but that doesn't tell you anything about the book. Those people arguing about whether it's a novel or not are entitled to their debate, but it seems sterile and pointless. This is a book with a purpose and an engine; you don't dip in and out of it like you would with a collection of short stories. She has that rare ability to within a line or two put personalities into your head where they stand up and start walking about under their own power. Every character in the book is alive, even those who appear in passing, and I can picture each and every one of the core female characters from each story as if they were sitting in among the photos on my living room shelves.
As for what it's about - well, I wouldn't presume. All I'll say is that the central device of the book - that of the reader watching a picture being created of a woman who is reading - is an ingenious device for examining our Ways of Seeing, to quote John Berger. As I read the book, I found myself hoping the images being used for the stories would be displayed at the end, but they're not; instead, there's an Author's Note, with only the names of pictures and artists and their dates and locations available to us to investigate further. Which, the more I think about it, is correct. If the book has a message, for me it is to go and experience these pictures in as real a way as you can manage, because that is how you dig out your own humanity.
A luminous, beautiful, fascinating book. Buy it and read it.