It’s almost the end of December, and it’s time to squeeze out one last book review for the year.
After Mrs Hamilton (Kindle, $4.99) is the second novel by British writer Clare Ashton. I loved her first book, Pennance, which was set in a small Cornish village and was told from the perspective of a reclusive female narrator mourning the death of her boyfriend and consumed with guilt, who eventually falls in love with another woman. Salem West in the Rainbow Reader called it a “modern Gothic romance” and perhaps that’s why I liked it so much!
After Mrs Hamilton is quite different! The image on the cover conveys sophistication, but also a female mask, a certain kind of deadness. This is a story of secrets, intra-generational secrets and secrets that women keep from each other. The two main characters are Englishwomen in their 20s, living in London. They both lead unhappy lives as the book opens. Clo is an escort for older lesbians, a people-pleaser, pretty, and a bit of a scatterbrain. She lives with her grandmother, Amelia, and has been essentially cast out by her own family as the black sheep. Laura is different: adopted, she broods about not knowing who her real family is, and is stifled in her marriage. She yearns for women but hasn’t let herself experience pleasure with a woman since college and her early marriage.
Laura and Clo are close, but don’t really know each other in a way. They do share a background of sorts, since Clo was raised in a small town called Middle Heyford and it turns out that Laura has a picture of her adoptive parents posing on a jetty there. But her adoptive parents died when she was young and she has no clue who her real mother is.
The slow unfolding of who Laura really is takes place over the course of the novel. In a parallel plot, Clo meets a woman who calls herself Mrs Hamilton at an escort rendezvous in the third chapter; “Mrs Hamilton” is actually an aging French film star. Clo falls in love with this woman her mother’s age when she discovers that the actress is living across the street from her and the development of their love affair is pretty gripping. I have to admit that some of the scenes between the attractive younger woman and the beautiful but definitely older woman were hard for me to take, though. I wondered whether this relationship was really the best thing for Clo… And while Laura meets an American friend of Clo’s called Susan, who appears to be a suitable partner for her as she transitions out of her marriage, it soon turns out that Susan is a problematic choice.
So, the book confronts taboos. It is constantly absorbing. Still, I found myself getting a little weary of the characters’ intense, whirling emotions. The women are constantly weeping or nervously vomiting (in Laura’s case) as revelations unfold. Characters are constantly pursuing or being pursued. There is a nasty fight on a London street where emotions get really primal. I also found it hard to believe that Laura was a doctor; we never see her in a work environment.
The book began as enjoyable melodrama for me, but by the end, it had softened enough that I realized I’d come to care about the characters. Their situations were vivid, but I constantly wondered if they were believable. It is the kind of book where the author holds the cards close to her chest and we don’t get all the answers till the very end. I understood why Clo and Laura were both so “crippled,” and I liked that at the climax, it seemed that each pair of unconventional lovers were able to meet each other halfway.
This is certainly a sophisticated read: a multi-layered European novel that reminded me of Cesare Pavese’s Among Women Only. Like that book, set in Milan among fashionistas, Ashton’s world of secretive women—at least to me!—is claustrophobic and a bit impenetrable. Ultimately, I was more charmed by Pennance, but I think I will remember After Mrs Hamilton more vividly.