The Volcano Lover-Susan Sontag
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, and, above all, love.
I can’t find the words to explain how much I loved Volcano-Lover. The history is exquisitely told and brought to life (grisly bits and all). You were reading this recounting of the Cavaliere’s life in Naples. As the British ambassador, he’s required to be the social centre of all the ex-pats in the country. Emma was more suited to this role than the Cavaliere who also sought to collect and document his beloved volcano, Vesuvius. You hear a bit about Italians when the shockwaves from the French Revolution hit Naples but this is a book squarely about this British community told in a way that makes it clear that the narrator is modern. So overlaid this history is an erudite voice that admittedly sounds like Sontag in her non-fiction but fits in perfectly with the character of Cavaliere. I love her essays so there was no problem for me.
The tone is artfully art historical with well timed philosophical moments (that flow with the rest of the narrative). Sontag waxes lyrically about collecting and about how collections inspire, isolate, and unite. Most people are a type of collector of something or other and so I think this makes for universality. Sontag even is pitch perfect about the reaction of others to your collection. I loved it.
However, I wish Books 4 & 5 were not a thing. I wish it had stopped at “and this is, the Cavaliere thought, how it is to die.” Stopped there I would have considered this an impeccable novel. The sectionin which the Cavaliere is old and confused just made me sad. The narrator changes meant you lost that erudite connection which I was so enjoying and the whole behind the scenes of minor characters thing seemed just awkwardly done and even worse, unnecessary. I say unnecessary because I read most of the book in a state of suspended belief, I didn’t spend my time wondering how real it all was because it was just so well done. But the last sections made me start to wonder how much was history and how much was fabrication and began to almost cheapen my enjoyment of the original story. I get that it was all about how history is written from one view and was making a statement about reliability but I guess I'm burned out of that conversation. I'm an archaeologist-I never assume anything is truly reliable.