05 April 2024

Review: The Beauties by Lauren Chater

The Beauties by Lauren Chater book cover

* Copy courtesy Simon & Schuster *

It's 1665 and Emilia Lennox heads to court to seek the favour of King Charles II after losing everything when her husband's lands and title were confiscated. Seeking to have them restored, Emilia begins a dangerous liaison where the lengths to which she'll go to have her status restored by the King will be tested. Meanwhile, Henry is a talented artist and assistant to the court painter commissioned to produce a series of portraits; the beauties from the title.

The Beauties by Lauren Chater contains multiple narrators with alternating chapters from both Emilia and Henry in the 'present' time period, and chapters from years earlier told by a younger Anne Hyde from the Hague.

Assuming The Hague was in France when in fact it's in the Netherlands and not noticing the Anne Hyde chapters were 6 years earlier than the primary timeline was a mistake on my part that generated some reader confusion and slight disconnect as a result.

Perhaps if I knew my history a little better, I'd have realised sooner that young Anne Hyde went on to become the first wife of James, Duke of York, making her the Duchess of York. The chapters that slip back in time a mere six or so years earlier to capture the Duchess of York commissioning the series of portraits was an odd choice to me. The narrative between Emilia and Henry was rich with compelling characters and there was plenty going on to hold the reader's interest without that.

That said, let's enjoy some of the descriptive writing that kept me engaged throughout:
"To distract myself, I poured all my energy into my new role as a lady-in-waiting. When the season changed, I travelled with the Princess to her home at Binnenhof Palace in The Hague. There I learned to dress the Princess's fine brown hair for stately occasions, pinning the curls tightly to her scalp so only the pearled tips of the pins peeked through. I learned how to sponge sweat out of a gown by daubing a mixture of vinegar and spit to lift the offending mark." Page 49
The setting at court was richly described and my feet ached along with Emilia's as she waited hours on end for a glimpse of the King. I thoroughly enjoyed the painterly setting at the artist's studio and the production goings on at the theatre.

It's somehow reassuring - although I'm not sure why or how - to see characters written today, yet placed in a novel set more than 350 years ago having the same struggles we do. The author convincingly captures the timeless nature of the worries that often plague us:
"At night, she lies awake staring at the roofbeams while the questions twist and twine, tying her in ever tighter knots of confusion. If only she could see the outcomes of her choices, then she could safely decide." Page 132-133
Emilia was trying to decide her future and I recently found myself wishing the same were true. Speaking of worries that often plague us, those who know their history well (which isn't me obviously) will recognise the year 1665 as being smack bang in the middle of the Great Plague of London and while only occupying a small section of the novel, I did enjoy the impact the plague had on the various characters. This was very well handled and I enjoyed the realistic portrayal of events and outcomes between characters as a result.

The Beauties by Lauren Chater is highly recommended for readers who enjoy a little art with their historical fiction, and if you enjoyed Beauty In Thorns by Kate Forsyth or The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal then this is for you!

My Rating:

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