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Life Mask [Hardcover]

Emma Donoghue
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

24 Jun 2004

LIFE MASK is the true story of three famous Londoners - an artist, an actress and an aristocrat - at the end of the eighteenth century. This is their love story, their gamble, their battle. Let the games begin.

Everybody wears a mask. Hadn't you noticed? We put them on for one very good reason: we dislike our own faces.

It's an era of looming war, and the erosion of freedom in the name of national security. A time of high art and big business, trashy spectacles and financial disasters. Celebrities are hounded by journalists, who serve up private passions alongside public crises. Marriages stretch or break, and so do friendships; political liaisons prove as dangerous as erotic ones. In Parliament, on stage, in the bedroom, at the race track, round the dinner table, old loyalties are wrenched by the winds of change. The World - as the elite calls itself - is fighting to survive these chaotic times.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (24 Jun 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1860499805
  • ISBN-13: 978-1860499807
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 22 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,580,740 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


She. . . makes interesting parallels between the political concerns of the 1790s and those of today (Guardian)

A born writer (New York Times Book Review)

. . . another bright, bruising slice of eighteenth-century life in London . . . Why should Michel Faber hog the glory? (Elle)

Donoghue's latest book pulsates with the vibrancy of London in an era that couldn't be more extravagant. While Mad King George was teetering on the throne, the grotesquely privileged carried on a gaudy social whirl (Time Out)

Book Description

An exhilarating story of the late eighteenth century's elite fighting to define itself, and to survive such chaotic times. A painful love triangle set against the backdrop of a highly media-aware and surprisingly modern society.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'Everybody wears a mask' 19 Aug 2010
By purpleheart TOP 100 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
`The Thames was loosening, its thin skin of ice cracked open by thousands of small boats, as if spring were on its way. The carriage with the Derby arms gilded on the side forced its way down Whitehall through a tangle of vehicles and pedestrians.'

The opening of this 600 page novel could come from a Regency romance and its tone takes a little while to settle down. This is an accomplished historical novel, set in the late eighteenth century and exploring the lifestyle of `the World', the `Beau Mode', the `Bon Ton'. The `World' is the small world of the aristocracy there by birth and those there by virtue of talent or ambition. The character list is large and includes Charles Fox, Horace Walpole, the Prince Regent and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. They are familiar to me from Amanda Foreman's fine biography of the Duchess of Devonshire and Stella Tillyard's fascinating Aristocrats, about the Lennox sisters.

Donoghue has three protagonists: Eliza Farren, a gifted actress known for her roles in Drury Lane; the Earl of Derby, smitten with Farren and Anne Damer, gifted sculptor and god daughter of Horace Walpole. Their real life stories are intriguing and Donoghue manages her material well. There are the odd times when it seems she didn't want to waste her research - so one character will tell another an interesting fact. In the main, she takes us through the French Revolution, the long opposition by Charles Fox, the interminable courtship of Farren by Derby with verve and humour and clarity. Anne Damer and Eliza Farren are both leading independent lives in London and becomes friends - a friendship which breaks when they are accused of unnatural feelings! This subject matter and the historical novel has led to Donoghue being compared to Sarah Waters but their styles are very different.

I've since spent time researching these fascinating characters. Brava!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I hesitated when deciding on a star rating for this book. When it's good, it's very very good; Donaghue really can write. Anne Damer is the most interesting character, and the story was strongest when focused on her. Rumours of "sapphism" plague her, although she swears there is no truth in them. And yet, her warm friendships with women are tinged with jealousy, while she recoils from romantic or matrimonial entanglements with men. How long, the reader wonders, can she continue to deny her own nature, even to herself?

The other main characters are Eliza and Derby. Derby's devotion and Eliza's insistence on keeping her virtue (Derby is still legally married, although long separated from his wife) seem touching at first. However, when Eliza tells Anne that she thinks Derby "a silly man", I lost patience with her and wished for the interminable courtship to end.

The political background (the madness of King George, the French revolution) provides an interesting backdrop, but too much of it is background noise. Politicians and aristocrats walk on and off, seeming interchangeable (apart from some colourful souls like Walpole and Lady Georgiana). Far too many events are described second-hand or were only tangentially related to the overall plot.

If the book focused more on the personal relationships, and tried less to cram in a history lesson, I would have given a 4 or 5 star.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating and unusual love triangle 11 Oct 2012
By Jacqui
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Life Mask is an excellent depiction both of its main characters and the period in which it is set. The three main protagonists-- actress Eliza Farren, the Earl of Derby and sculptor Anne Damer, all real historical personages-- are well-rounded and thoroughly credible. The plot is a slow burner but worth staying with to see the way their stories intertwine and develop.

As a historian of the period I was pleased to see a broad range of familiar characters popping up to deliver supporting or cameo roles. Charles James Fox, the Duchess of Devonshire and Horace Walpole appear, and I loved nearly every single scene-stealing appearance made by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. My main criticism of the book would be that the political background, a major part of the novel, is oversimplified. A lot of technical terms are bandied about without the author apparently understanding them in context-- "Tory", "prime minister" and "liberal" for example. Donoghue also has a regrettable habit of making unsubtle and intrusive attempts to connect events of the 1790s to events of the 2000s. The parallels between Britain's reaction to revolutionary France and the American and British reactions to 9/11 are obvious enough without having to resort to using anachronistic terms like "weapons of mass destruction", "homeland security" and "terrorist".

These are, however, pedantic niggles and certainly did not detract from my overall enjoyment. I highly recommend this novel to any student of the period, and hope anyone unfamiliar with it will find it an entertaining introduction to late eighteenth century Britain.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rediscovery of the 18th-century 4 Jan 2007
By Zannie
I have to admit that, with the exception of joyfully breezing through Jane Austen, I generally find 18th-century novels hardgoing. However, Emma Donoghue has succeeded in writing a convincing 18th-century novel while maintaining a deftness of touch to engage the 21st-century reader.

While by no means simple, the plot narrative is striking in its clarity to ensure that a deep understanding of 18th-century politics is not a pre-requisite. It educates and informs without obstructing the story, and I felt more than a little smug after reading it that I could excuse the hours I spent immersed in the book has left me with an improved education.

Donoghue should be particularly congratulated also for her excellence in drawing the frisson between Derby and Eliza, especially in the opening chapters. Even in the comparatively loose society we inhabit today, one is all more than aware of the awkwardness that is caused by a mis-judged move for romance, especially in a group of mutual friends and acquaintances. The scenes such as Mrs. Dramer's dinner following a first move by Derby felt deliciously voyeuristic as I could feel and see the atmosphere caused by his discomfort.

The characterisation is underpinned by a cynical sense of humour about class and appearances that are as true today as they were 200+ years ago. Donoghue at times seems to judge her characters from 21st-century standards of what is hypocrisy and hence the line between pastiche and parody sometimes appears to come into view. Regardless of this, it is the best book I have read so far in 2007 out of a total of two and will remain at the top of my favourites list for some time.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Long and dull
So long, so dull, so not expected from this imaginative and interesting author. I've read and greatly enjoyed other emma Donohue work but unfortunately this book just did not hold... Read more
Published 2 months ago by k wilks
4.0 out of 5 stars More than an 18th century romance
Emma Donaghue conjures up life backstage in both politics and the theatre. We get a good idea of London society in ferment while the revolution in France is being played out. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Twickenham Green
5.0 out of 5 stars Life mask by Emma Donoghue
review by Marie Lloyd
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Having read Slammerkin and not liking it very much, due I think to the main female character being someone I could just... Read more
Published on 17 Jan 2010 by P. Lloyd
2.0 out of 5 stars Oh what a waste of time...
I came over this book really cheap and thought, hey this might be good. Well it wasn't so it was a good thing it was cheap. Read more
Published on 12 Feb 2009 by Grottis
2.0 out of 5 stars Very disappointing
Having enjoyed Slammerkin, I couldn't wait for this book but was sorely disappointed.

At page 297 I wondered why we were still setting the scene instead of getting into... Read more
Published on 7 May 2007 by Thierry
4.0 out of 5 stars Historical with bite
A perfect antitode to the flood of Regency romances currently packing out bookshops. Emma Donoghue, like Melanie Gifford and, to an extent, Sarah Waters, is not afraid to endow... Read more
Published on 5 May 2007 by I. Garbutt
4.0 out of 5 stars Living in interesting times
There's a missing period of English history for those of us who studied in English schools; we learned lots about Nazi Germany and the Tudors, but even when reading Jane Austen,... Read more
Published on 1 Aug 2006 by Grumpy old woman
2.0 out of 5 stars total lack of plot + unsympathetic characters = 2/5
Most books, I find, are focused either on character development or on plot. Life Mask, regrettably, is focused on neither. Read more
Published on 23 July 2006 by la_pretzel
1.0 out of 5 stars life mask by emma donoghue
please save your time and money, and do not attempt to read this very boring book
Published on 1 May 2006 by Seema Gupta
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