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The Volcano Lover: A Romance

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  1,937 ratings  ·  182 reviews
Set in 18th century Naples, based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his celebrated wife Emma, and Lord Nelson, and peopled with many of the great figures of the day, this unconventional, bestselling historical romance from the National Book Award-winning author of In America touches on themes of sex and revolution, the fate of nature, art and the collector's obsessions ...more
Paperback, 420 pages
Published August 1st 2004 by St. Martin's Press (first published January 1st 1992)
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3.59  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,937 ratings  ·  182 reviews

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Jun 22, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book is so close to great. . . I was reading Sontag's Paris Review interview afterward, which is fascinating, obviously--at 13, she was apparently reading the journals of Gide--and I think it opened me up to the flaw in the book, which is structural. She had in mind this balletic structure modeled on the four temperaments--melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, although the last two are more like epilogues. First, Sontag gives us an oddly sad story about this quiet aristocrat living in ...more

I love Sontag the writer, provocateur, thinker, etc...and I love her essays and criticism. And her life. I always think twice about what she says and recommends and the attitudes she takes.

But this book didn't really live up to my expectations. I love some of it- the aphoristic insights and the subdued delineations of places and objects, especially. Her characterization can be pretty strong and sometimes the evocative feel of time and place is really there.

Unfortunately the writing is a little
Eve Kay
Oct 27, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I did alot of yawning while reading this, it was honestly very boring. I also did alot of that sound that I would imagine myself making if there was a hairball forming at the back of my throat. All these rich people problems, swimming in luxury and opulence and all these immaterial things surrounding them, the need to collect, to have, to own. Yak. Art is talked as if it's only something appreciated by the wealthy and some of the art pieces mentioned went right over my head so I have no understa ...more
Nov 30, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Deep research on scandals and art works of aristocratic late 18th-century Naples around the time of the French Revolution made into good story/character study of English aesthete and collector William Hamilton, his two wives, and Admiral Nelson. Hamilton profited from the excavations at Pompeii, had an intimate view of the scatalogical excesses and executions perpetrated by the Neapolitan court, and participated in a few menages a trois. His second wife Emma progresses as a Barry Lyndon-type rak ...more
Suzanne Stroh
Annie Liebovitz has called this Susan Sontag's best book, and she should know, and I agree. It's a gorgeous, lyrical novel of ideas disguised as an 18th century romance about a love triangle between the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, the concubine he marries and the Naval hero she worships. This book has it all: pretty girls, virile noblemen, erupting volcanoes, priceless paintings, science and seduction, sex and war crimes, houses and gardens, gallows and guillotines.

As with every
Feb 19, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps I should start with a comment by Evelyn Toynton in COMMENTARY, Nov. 1992, right after the book was published. This is just a short section of a well written critique:

"But in the end, apart from some vivid images of street scenes in Naples, of a rampaging mob, of Sir William’s pathetic pet monkey, and of Emma dancing, the strongest impression one takes away from this book is of the suffocatingly humorless presence of Susan Son-tag.

She has become by now a virtual icon of Mind, the ultimate
I love this book, having first read it back in '92-'93. It's still sitting right there on my shelf, despite having been pulled off several times for a re-read. Complex? Uhmmm, not really. Big words? No bigger, certainly, than McCarthy. Ha! Not even close. No, just top of the line, grade A, "historical romance." If that. I'd call it much more myself. Susan Sontag is a writers writer. 5 Star caliber all the way.
Robert Sheard
Apr 10, 2019 marked it as abandoned
This is a DNF for me. Everything about it feels distant, pretentious, and I'm bored with it after just a few chapters. Moving onto something else...
Feb 25, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This rating will no doubt seem harsh, compared to the rating I just gave another book, but I think at least in some ways, it's merited.

I really like Sontag's essays, and think she's quite a wonderful writer and thinker, and a lot of that is on display here. I was curious to see what she'd make out of a novel, and she doesn't disappoint in that regard-- this really is a strange book, one that is as interested in argument and philosophy and culture as much as it is in more traditional novelistic c
May 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an exhilarating read more for its encyclopedic if kaleidoscopically shifting views of a passionately intelligent and acquisitive Cavaliere. It matters little that the novel is based on the real-life triangle of Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma, and Lord Nelson. What counts is the formal yet lyrical beauty of the writing, the ever-changing impressions of a man in love with not just a woman but the world of objects and art. Almost mystical in the revelry of its cataloguing of things and ...more
Apr 16, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I couldn't even finish this book. Not my cup of tea. If I don't like the style and what the author has to say, I don't waste my time on it.
Tom Lee
Feb 11, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who knew a volcano could give birth to such a wealth of conflicting symbolism? In Sontag’s gripping piece of historical fiction, it appears as a metaphor for destruction and preservation, the artistic and the scientific, the penis and the vagina – and a whole lot more.

I personally love historical fiction and The Volcano Lover is an enjoyable and thought-provoking example of the genre. It takes as its basis a very famous, real-life love affair from the Napoleonic Wars, but avoids directly naming
The dramatic love triangle between Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma, and her lover, Lord Nelson, of the late 18th-century Naples is the basis of Sontag's historical "romance". The Cavaliere is an obsessive collector and fascinated with Mount Vesuvius which becomes symbolic of each characters' emotions at one point or another. When his beloved Catherine dies he falls in love with his nephew's lover, Emma, who ultimately finds true love not in the Cavaliere, but in "the hero", Lord Nelson. The ...more
Tony Hightower
I wasn't able to finish this. It wasn't that she's bad at this -- her prose flows nicely, and the flourishes and characters move in three dimensions -- but man, is she in love with her own ability to string phrases and words together.

The remembrance-as-recollection plot device only works if you're crystal clear about how many layers deep into the onion of memory you've currently burrowed. That was a problem in this book, and while it might be forgivable for those who read scholarly texts and hav
Lisa Fluet
Nov 15, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

I read this book while in Naples (it's set in Naples, late-18th-early 19th century). I think it's probably Susan Sontag's best novel. But then I don't really like her novels normally...[random trivia]--Susan Sontag's novels come up in the movie "Bull Durham" (Kevin Costner--or "Crash"--doesn't like them, either...)
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Brandon Cook
An enjoyable historical fiction about the collector and volcanologist William Hamilton and his wife, Emma Hamilton.

Sontag structures the novel around the life of W. Hamilton as he serves as the British ambassador in Sicily during the late 18th and early 19th century. Readers at all familiar with this time in Italian history will enjoy these segments.

The second half of the novel focuses more on Emma Hamilton's affair with the famous naval admiral Horatio Nelson. The book ends with a series of s
Victor Sonkin
While the story never called the principal characters (Lord Hamilton, his wife Emma Hamilton, her lover Horatio Nelson, even the King and Queen of the Two Sicilies) by name, it is very clear who is who, and this device, meant to signify that the author has the right to do what she wants with the characters, is definitely de trop. Written in a style which I usually do not love, this is nevertheless a gripping story with a lot of era-specific and generally human nuances.
Alex Ankarr
Jan 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's a long time since I read it and hard to remember details. Barring Emma's mum's disgusted aside of "Men are bad!", which is hard to argue. Also clear is the memory of how loving and devoted the mother/daughter relationship is - a filial ideal, a beautiful sororal dream that I can't believe in any more. It's not like that really with women, kids, it don't really exist! It's Middleton that got it right: 'Women Beware Women'. And how.
Jun 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this novel, Sontag's insights are deft, her prose luxurious, and her characters vivid. While I might have preferred a faster pace at certain points, I enjoyed the book because of how easy it was to feel transported. Great escapist literature, and an interesting story.
Sep 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The dramatic heart of this book lies in Nelson’s distinctly unheroic behaviour during the Neapolitan Republican uprising in 1799, when he oversaw the execution of hundreds of ‘rebels’, and hanged the much-loved Admiral Caracciolo and threw his body into the harbour.
The story starts, though, as Sir William Hamilton goes back to Naples from London to carry on his work as British Ambassador. His wife - the reserved, refined Catherine - plays the piano in the Neapolitan palazzo while Hamilton is ou
Feb 10, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: readin12
This was a hard book to get into. The challenge was gettin through the superficial lives of it's 3 main characters. It is discribed as an historical novel, but I thought the author spent way too much time with their internal struggles which were very common and disgustingly predictable. I also question whether this was a true romance novel.

When the "action" picked up which is to say when somthing actually happens the possibility for a good situaltion to learn something about this period in Histo
Well I give up. I'm on page 172 and I can feel the lava hardening around my ankles as I read this book. Sontag's style is so thick she makes Iris Murdoch feel like a waltz in the park.

I was so looking forward to learning more about this unusual relationship between Hamilton, his wife and Nelson but it is almost like she's avoiding the subject (which is perhaps how Hamilton handled it).

Anyways with thousands of other books waiting on my shelves I can't get bogged down in something that so polite
Isabella Diocson
I'm usually a fast reader given my own set of circumstances. This, however, is a different story considering that this was an exhausting read which took me almost 2 months to finish. Nevertheless this book was interesting, painting a vivid and poignant picture of the life of The Cavaliere as an antiquarian, diplomat, husband, and a lover of the volcano. I loved how Susan Sontag writes with depth, sucking the reader in with deep thoughts beyond what can only be grasped as mere observations. Altho ...more
JSA Lowe
Apr 15, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I know I was supposed to like this, but I wish Sontag had stayed the hell away from narrative "realistic" fiction. This bored the pants onto me and I missed the weirdness of Death Kit and her other awesome freakazoid neglected work. Now I'm thinking of that stupid line from Bull Durham and I'm even more upset, so stopping writing now.
Jan 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There's very few books that I can't put down and will carry on reading while walking to and fro.
This is one of them, any fan of Susan Sontag's work will enjoy this book and I am sure anyone new to Susan Sontage will become an instant fan. Very interesting, well-crafted story. A must read, and re-read.
Oct 01, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Difficult to read. Lots of words I didn't know. I wasn't familiar with the historial figures she was writing about. After I went to Wiki and read up on the main characters, the book made more sense. Author is very wordy. Still, gave good insights on the culture of the time and in-depth character analyses.
Nov 27, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008
I enjoyed most of this book until the last third where it began to tire me and I skimmed a little. Then it perked up right at the end and the final three pages or so threatened to bring a tear to my eye.

So there you go.
Sep 14, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Unless one sits with a dictionary next to you, it is difficult to follow. However my vocabulary increased substantially as this writer knows how to use big words in a grand eloquent style of literary genius. However, the story line was a bit boring and I had to push to finish it.
Lee Foust
Nov 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Critic Lettie Ransley of The Guardian calls Susan Sontag’s self-proclaimed romance The Volcano Lover “A novel of ideas.” According to the blurbs on the back of the Picador paperback, the New York Times critic does the same. Seems like the literary establishment wanted to praise Sontag’s historical fiction of Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples, his remarkable wife Emma, and Emma’s scandalous affair with English war hero admiral Nelson, but they were puzzled ...more
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Goodreads Librari...: Book with dual ISBN 5 194 Apr 20, 2017 01:11PM  

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Jewish American literary critic, theorist, novelist, and filmmaker.
“Every culture has its southerners -- people who work as little as they can, preferring to dance, drink, sing brawl, kill their unfaithful spouses; who have livelier gestures, more lustrous eyes, more colorful garments, more fancifully decorated vehicles, a wonderful sense of rhythm, and charm, charm, charm; unambitious, no, lazy, ignorant, superstitious, uninhibited people, never on time, conspicuously poorer (how could it be otherwise, say the northerners); who for all their poverty and squalor lead enviable lives -- envied, that is, by work-driven, sensually inhibted, less corruptly governed northerners. We are superior to them, say the northerners, clearly superior. We do not shirk our duties or tell lies as a matter of course, we work hard, we are punctual, we keep reliable accounts. But they have more fun than we do ... They caution[ed] themselves as people do who know they are part of a superior culture: we mustn't let ourselves go, mustn't descend to the level of the ... jungle, street, bush, bog, hills, outback (take your pick). For if you start dancing on tables, fanning yourself, feeling sleepy when you pick up a book, developing a sense of rhythm, making love whenever you feel like it -- then you know. The south has got you.” 59 likes
“Desire wills its perpetuation ad infinitum.” 17 likes
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