Paula Cappa's Reviews > A Fatal Likeness

A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd
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Why is this book worth reading? Isn't that the point of all these book reviews? Here's a question I'd like to ask the author Lynn Shepherd. Why is this book worth writing? Truly, why would you write this story? To be honest, I liked this book and I did not like this book. While it's well written and well researched (Shepherd is a talented writer), the author has made some wild speculations about the Shelley family, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Shelleys (I've read numerous biographies) had a tragic life filled with deaths, suicides, betrayals, lies, deceptions, guilt, loss, abandonment, self-indulgence, scandal after scandal, to say nothing of the madness of literary genius in the mix. Geez, wasn't all that juicy enough? Now, Shepherd has added murder into their fictional lives. There is nothing, no hint of suggestion at all in any of their biographies that suggest the crime of murder. So, maybe the character Charles Maddox needed a murder or two to solve, but why use the Shelleys? I think when an author writes historical fiction (or biographical fiction as this essentially is), the author must be careful not to damage the dead. After closing this book, I did feel that Shepherd's wild speculations of murder in the Shelley family were not appropriate, even under the umbrella of creative license. Instead of gaining enlightenment about the Shelleys, I felt hustled and manipulated. Fiction often speculates to fill in the blanks and most of the time I like that when the speculation makes sense. A Fatal Likeness did not make sense to me and seemed to be an attack on the Shelleys' graves. Why do it?
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 1, 2014 – Shelved

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message 1: by Greg (new)

Greg One of the problems about historical fiction generally is the use or misuse of real people and events to create a story that might have no real basis in fact. I remember in my years as a history undergrad how lecturers emphasised the need to avoid historical fiction because of its speculative and unreliable nature (many writers of historical fiction are not historians and the research that they do might be entirely reliant on a selective reading of secondary as opposed to primary sources).

That said, historical fiction's strength is in introducing people to a particular time, place or person, and then encouraging them to read further about the subject. In a few cases, the author might offer an insight that had been missed by historians but, for the most part, historical fiction is not a substitute for good history or biography in my opinion.

What's interesting here is that you mention having read a number of biographies about the Shelleys, which would've given you a good sense of the history of this couple and their milieu. As a result, Shepherd's book doesn't satisfy because, based on your prior reading, the book's premise of murder seems highly unlikely. But what if you had read this book first?

Paula Cappa Hi Greg: Yes, that is exactly the point of damaging the dead here. I'm betting people who read this as historical fiction and hoping to get some biographical insights to Mary and Percy Shelley (and Claire) might take Shepherd's speculation as having some basis. Historical and biographical fiction are tricky. (Spoiler alert ahead) Murder is a high crime. Infanticide is especially repulsive. To suggest that MS is guilty goes way beyond literary license. In her opening, Shepherd states she believes her story is "one plausible answer to many of the mysteries about the Shelleys." Really? Apparently the "inexplicable gaps and silences" in journals, letters, biographies, etc., and MS's bouts of depression imply infanticide? And not once, but MS is accused of killing her three babies (but not her son Percy. Hmmmm. Why not if MS was so driven?). One thing is clear: Shepherd states in end author notes that she found "no actual evidence that MS harmed her children, knowingly or otherwise ...or expected to" find that evidence. So, why manufacture this horror into the story? The idea is just so misconceived in my opinion and has no place in biographical fiction ... unless you are seeking sensationalism. I won't accuse Shepherd of that but I will say, I disagree with her fictionalized "answer" to the mysteries of the Shelleys. Even in the purest fiction, if we injure the mystery with lies, who are we serving?

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