The School of Nightby Louis Bayard
An ancient mystery, a lost letter, and a timeless love unleash a long-buried web of intrigue that spans four centuries
In the late sixteenth century, five brilliant scholars gather under the cloak of darkness to discuss God, politics, astronomy, and the black arts. Known as the School of Night, they meet in secret to avoid the wrath of Queen Elizabeth. But/b>
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An ancient mystery, a lost letter, and a timeless love unleash a long-buried web of intrigue that spans four centuries
In the late sixteenth century, five brilliant scholars gather under the cloak of darkness to discuss God, politics, astronomy, and the black arts. Known as the School of Night, they meet in secret to avoid the wrath of Queen Elizabeth. But one of the men, Thomas Harriot, has secrets of his own, secrets he shares with one person only: the servant woman he loves.
In modern-day Washington, D.C., disgraced Elizabethan scholar Henry Cavendish has been hired by the ruthless antiquities collector Bernard Styles to find a missing letter. The letter dates from the 1600s and was stolen by Henry's close friend, Alonzo Wax. Now Wax is dead and Styles wants the letter back.
But the letter is an object of interest to others, too. It may be the clue to a hidden treasure; it may contain the long-sought formula for alchemy; it most certainly will prove the existence of the group of men whom Shakespeare dubbed the School of Night but about whom little is known. Joining Henry in his search for the letter is Clarissa Dale, a mysterious woman who suffers from visions that only Henry can understand. In short order, Henry finds himself stumbling through a secretive world of ancient perils, caught up in a deadly plot, and ensnared in the tragic legacy of a forgotten genius.
Bayard's novel isn't the first to combine historical characters and long-secret shenanigans, but instead of suggesting Jesus married Mary Magdalene, it puts Shakespeare into a gay love affair.
Henry Cavendish is a disgraced Elizabethan scholar, fooled by a forgery of a poem supposedly written by Walter Raleigh. Henry has retreated to a life of tutoring and odd jobs in Washington, D.C., and reconnected with Alonzo Wax, a college friend and a book collector. The eccentric Wax, the most interesting character, has purloined part of a letter that sheds light on the fabled School of Night, a secret congregation of illustrious Elizabethan-era intellects like Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and the brilliant but little-known scientist Thomas Harriot. The school delved into theology, philosophy and science, in a manner thought traitorous and blasphemous. Wax apparently commits suicide, but he also reveals his discovery to Cavendish, to Clarissa Dale, a woman Wax met at a lecture who claims psychic visions of Harriot, and to another antique book collector. At Wax's memorial service, Henry is approached by the letter's purported owner, an English antiquities collector named Bernard Styles, and offered a handsome sum to find and return the letter. But then Wax's devoted assistant is murdered and Wax's collection is stolen. Clues lead Henry and Clarissa to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near where Harriot studied Native Americans during the failed attempt to establish an English colony. There they find Wax in hiding, claiming the letter points to a treasure. Clues then lead the trio to Syon House in England, the ancestral seat of the Earl of Northumberland, where Harriot once lived. Bayard offers multiple twists and turns, murders and kidnappings—and codes. Especially appealing are the deftly rendered flashback chapters in which Thomas Harriot and his love, Margaret Crookenshanks, appear.
Bayard (The Black Tower, 2008, etc.)blends luminaries of history, lost treasure, intrigue and a double-twist conclusion into a highly readable concoction.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
“Fascinating…A few codes and cryptograms are all you need to get caught up in an enigmatic mystery like The School of Night.” The New York Times Book Review
“Exhilarating…Bayard adds twist after satisfying twist... At its heart, The School of Night illuminates a glimpse into legend, assuring readers that this ancient classroom offered a curriculum heavy on secrets.” The Washington Post
“Rich and rewarding...Mr. Bayard writes seamless prose and conjures the past with credibility.” The Wall Street Journal
“[A] superb intellectual thriller...The author's persuasive portrayal of undeservedly obscure real-life scientist Thomas Harriot, a member of the school, enhances a plot with intelligence and depth.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“[A] compelling literary thriller” Library Journal (starred)
“An entertaining intelligent thriller…fast-paced [with] several superb twists.” The Mystery Gazette
“[D]eftly rendered. . . . Bayard (The Black Tower, 2008, etc.) blends luminaries of history, lost treasure, intrigue and a double-twist conclusion into a highly readable concoction.” Kirkus Reviews
“Bayard's latest. . . interweaves the antic comedy of the modern-day caper with the tragic and affecting love story of the past.” Booklist
“Bayard has crafted a deft, immensely engaging, and in the end, surprisingly moving novel” James Williams, popmatters.com
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Read an Excerpt
The School of Night
By Louis Bayard
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Louis Bayard
All rights reserved.
Against all odds, against my own wishes, this is a love story. And it began, of all places, at Alonzo Wax's funeral.
Now I'd known Alonzo pretty much all my adult life, but in the months after his death, I learned a surprising number of things about him. For instance, he chased his morning shots of Grey Goose with Rocky Road. He had never read a word of Alexander Pope — too modern — but he followed every single comic strip in The Washington Post (even "Family Circus"). He was a sneak and a liar and a thief and would have slain every grandmother he had for an original edition of Bussy d'Ambois. And he loved me.
But in those early months of mourning — or whatever it was we were doing about Alonzo — the biggest surprise was this: He had become Catholic. And had never gotten around to telling his parents, loosely observant Rockville Jews who found the baptism certificate while sorting through his filing cabinets. After some family debate, Alonzo's sister Shayla began shaking the trees for priests, until a friend told her that suicide was a mortal sin for the Church. So she opted to hold the memorial service at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which, in addition to being marble, was home to the world's largest collection of printed Shakespearean works and to a small mountain of preserved and cataloged Elizabethiana. The Folger, in other words, was engaged in roughly the same business as Alonzo had been: ransacking boxes and chests for centuries-old documents that were, in most cases, considered highly disposable by the original writers.
Shayla was glad to have missed the incense, but something else struck her as she stood greeting mourners at the entrance to the great hall.
"Henry," she whispered. "I forgot. I hate lutes."
It could have been worse, I reminded her. The last memorial service I'd attended at the Folger was for a Buddhist restaurateur, and we were subjected to an hour of Tibetan music: finger cymbals and skull drums and, glowering over everything, a massively built throat singer, swaddled in goatskin, belching up chord after chord.
"And besides," I added, "the lute quartet was your idea."
"You know, I thought maybe they'd bring a viol. Or an hautboy."
"That's how it works. An Elizabethan collector dies, out come the lutes."
More than lutes. Significant People had come to pay respects to Alonzo, and here and there, framed by long swords and halberds, one could make out the graven profiles of More Than Usually Significant People. An assistant librarian of Congress, a Smithsonian undersecretary, an ambassador from Mauritius ... even a U.S. senator, longtime friend and beneficiary of the Wax family, who worked the room as deftly as if it were a PAC breakfast. Alonzo, I thought, would have been appalled and flattered all at once.
"Did I mention you're his executor?" Shayla said.
She turned just in time to catch the look on my face.
"If you want to pass," she said, "I'll understand."
"No. I'm honored."
"There's some money in it, I think. Not a lot ..."
"Does it matter if I don't know what I'm doing?"
"No," she said. "Your remarks — that's all you need to worry about today."
She narrowed her eyes at me. The stripe of unretouched hair along her scalp shone like war paint.
"You did prepare, right, Henry? Alonzo hated stammering; you know that."
For that very reason, I had written my remarks on index cards, but as I laid them in ranks across the podium, they filled me with a strange revulsion. And so, at the last instant, I decided to wing it. I gazed out across those three-hundred-plus mourners, spread across nearly three thousand square feet of terra-cotta tile, under a massively vaulted strapwork ceiling ... and I went deliberately small. Which is to say, I spoke about meeting Alonzo Wax.
It was the first day of our freshman year, and Alonzo was the very first student I met, and because I didn't know any better, I thought all students were like him. ("I'm sorry now they weren't," I said.) The first thing Alonzo did was to offer me a tumbler of Pimm's — he kept it in a tiny cut-glass container in his hip pocket. And when he found out I was planning to major in English, he demanded my opinion of A Winter's Tale. I got out maybe three sentences before he cut me off and told me how benighted I was. ("'Benighted' was the exact word.") And when I told him I'd never read Chapman — well, I thought he was going to wash his hands of me then and there. Instead, he invited me to dinner.
"It was a real dinner," I said. "With courses. He explained to me that university food was a known carcinogen. 'Of course, the science has been suppressed,' he said, 'but the findings are unanimous. That shit will kill you.'"
Before I could retrieve them, the words — kill you — went shivering through the climate-controlled air. And in that moment, yes, I wished I could turn the clock back to Elizabethan days, when this great hall would have been a hive of distraction. Masques and plays and dances. Rushes covering the floor, dogs roaming free, a smell of agriculture everywhere. My voice just one thread among many.
Alonzo, I hurried on, paid for our meal, as he usually did. The tip was about the same size as the bill. And he allowed as how my ideas on Winter's Tale weren't quite so daft as he first thought. But I should still read Chapman.
"'You'll never get anywhere,' he said, 'until you find a nice minor poet.'"
I stacked my unused index cards in a nice little pile. I squinted down at the finish line.
"Alonzo's self-assurance seemed to me something colossal. I was just this kid from the burbs, and here was this guy my own age carrying himself like a professor. And the real professors, they were as scared of him as I was, and why wouldn't they be, he was —"
He was what? I can't now remember what I was going to say because she, in effect, finished the sentence for me. Or began another one altogether. Just by walking into the great hall.
At least forty minutes late.
To this day I'm not sure I would have noticed her if she'd dressed properly. Like the rest of us, I mean, in our black wool and crepe. She was wearing an old-fashioned A-line dress, cotton — scarlet! — tight in the bust, loose and jovial in the skirt. She walked like somebody who was used to wearing such a dress. She looked more comfortable than anyone else in the room.
Nobody said a word to her. We were all probably just waiting for her to see her error. Oh, the wedding's across the street! At the Congregational church!
But she gave no sign of having come to the wrong place. She took a seat at the end of the third row and, without embarrassment, turned her attention on the speaker.
Who was me.
I had briefly forgotten this.
"Alonzo," I said, "was a — a great collector, we all know that. That's why there are ... so many of us here, right? But to me, nothing in his collection was ... ever as unique as he was. So ..." — Finish. Finish — "so that's what I'll remember."
Who spoke after me? I couldn't tell you. By the time I sat down, I was gathering data. A tough job, because she was two rows behind me and slightly northward, which meant I had to wheel about in my seat at regular intervals and pretend I wasn't being the most irksome guy in the room. Somehow, through the heads and hats, sections of her came back to me. A profusion of dark hair. A creamy arm, draped across the back of her chair. And, most enticing of all, a ledge of collarbone, striking a note of pioneer resilience against the slenderness of her neck.
And then, from the podium, came the throbbing contralto of Alonzo's mother.
"My heart is so full," she said. "So very full to see all these people gathered to honor my son."
You might suppose I felt guilt. Given that, in this moment, I wasn't honoring her son. You would be half right. But here's the thing. You can get just as lucky at a funeral as at a wedding. In fact, luckier. Someone always needs to be comforted.
And Alonzo, more than anyone else, would have guessed how complicated the act of grieving him would be. He'd left behind no children. He'd never courted sentiment, he'd never courted anything — or anybody. But all the same he understood me. Just come back when you're done, I could hear him saying. There's a letter I want to show you in the Maggs and Quaritch catalog. Written to the Laird of Craighall ...
And so, by the time the service was over, I believed I had his full dispensation to proceed. But as I stood up, another woman's voice rang after me.
Lily Pentzler. Short-waisted and long-abiding. Braced like a professional wrestler, tufts of gray hair straggling over carob eyes, a stack of cocktail napkins in each hand. An air of harassed charity, not specific to this occasion.
"Do you need help?" I asked.
"Do I need help?"
Lily was Alonzo's amanuensis. I use that word because that's how it was printed on her business cards. "It means picking up the master's scraps," she once explained. Exactly what she was doing now.
"The security kept us waiting for nearly an hour," she told me. "The florist screwed up and sent lilies. Alonzo hated lilies. The caterer just got here. Just. Got. Here. People, before they go and, you know, harm themselves in some definitive way, should be required — and I'm talking beyond congressional mandate, Henry, a level of divine mandate that says, 'Know what? Before you do it, organize your own memorial service, 'kay? Buy the wreath, set up the open bar. Hire the fucking caterers and then kill yourself.'"
"I can see your point."
"This" — the piles of napkins began to teeter — "this will have the effect of ending suicide as we know it."
"Do you need any help?" I asked again.
She looked at me.
"We've missed you, Henry. You haven't been by to see us lately."
"Oh, yeah. Kinda busy. Teaching gig. The freelance thing. This, that ..."
"The next thing," she said, eyeing me closely.
"Well, come by later, anyway. There's a wake at five. We're taking over the top floor of the Pour House, and Bridget is going to sing something mawkish and out of period. 'Last Rose of Summer,' I think. On second thought, save yourself."
She smiled then, just a little bit, and, pivoting slowly, labored toward the banquet table, which was nearly as tall as she was.
By now, no more than a minute had passed, but it was enough. The woman in scarlet was nowhere to be found. Through the great hall I wandered, half inspecting the crossbow bolts and the digitalized First Folio with the touch screen that made the pages turn like magic, and I was aware only of my own defeat, growing around me.
Until at my eastern periphery, like dawn, a long pale arm materialized, pushing against the oaken entrance door.
She was leaving. As quietly as she had come.
And here again fate intervened. Not Lily Pentzler this time but Alonzo's grandfather, ninety-eight, who believed I was his great-nephew and couldn't be told otherwise. Loosening his ancient-mariner grip required the intervention of the actual great-nephew, a pet insurance salesman from Centerville, Virginia. I took three long strides into the entry hall, I shoved open the door, stood there in the blinding heat....
She was gone.
No one but me standing on those marble steps in the early-September blast. Sweat tickled through my collar, and around me rose a smell like burning tires. Magnolias were growing, crape myrtles, and not much else.
Hard to explain the dejection that swept over me. I was a man in my mid-forties, wasn't I? Disappointment was my daily gruel. Back on the wheel, Henry.
And then I heard someone call after me:
"Well, there you are!"
So much familiarity in the tone that I braced myself for another of Alonzo's relations. (The Waxes were a mighty tribe in their day.) This was someone else, a man in early winter: silver-haired, handsome and rawboned, and erect. Hale with a vengeance: his skin looked like someone had gone at it with pumice. He took my hand and held it for perhaps a second too long, but his smile was benign and vaguely dithering. In a BBC sitcom, he'd have been the vicar. He'd have ridden in on a bike with big panniers.
"Mr. Cavendish," he said (and indeed the accent was British), "I wonder if I might have a word with you."
This is where my little track of linearity breaks down. Because when he next spoke, it was as if he'd already spoken. And it was as if Alonzo was speaking, too, from his watery grave. And maybe some part of me was chiming in. All of us in the same helpless chord, not quite in tune but impossible to disaggregate.
"The School of Night."CHAPTER 2
"Have I said anything wrong?" asked the old man. His gaze was no longer quite so dithery.
"I only ask because you seem to have taken a fright."
"Oh, no, it's just —" I ran a hand down my scalp. "It's been a long — the whole day has been ... for a second there, it was like Alonzo's ghost was passing by."
"And who says it wasn't?"
Humming to himself, the old man reached inside his suit jacket and brought out an umbrella, black and utilitarian, that exploded open at a touch of the thumb.
"The sun disagrees with me," he said.
"Excuse me, I don't think I caught your name."
"Bernard Styles," he said.
There lay, beneath his expensive accent, the faintest traces of Celtic, like tobacco fumes clinging to a reformed smoker's clothes.
"Very nice to meet you," I said.
"You've heard of me, perhaps?"
"I don't get out much."
"Well, then," he said easily, "I should tell you I'm in the same collecting line as poor Alonzo. Only in a different sphere of influence."
"As in England?"
"Buckinghamshire. Not so very far from Waddesdon Manor."
"Well, in that case, it's very kind of you to come all this way."
"Oh," said Bernard Styles. "I wouldn't have missed it."
No obvious change in his tone or demeanor. The change was all in my skin — a barometric tickle.
"Can you believe it?" he said, giving his umbrella a slow twirl. "This is my very first time in your nation's capital. Everything looks quite fantastical to me."
I thought he was overdoing it with the "fantastical," but then I turned to my left and saw the Washington Monument emerging like a thought cloud from the Capitol's brain.
"Oh," I said. "I see what you mean. Sorry about the heat."
"Yes, it's quite wretched. One can't altogether breathe. Perhaps we might go inside, after all."
The way was blocked, though, by a tall man with a brow like a fender.
"This is Halldor," said Bernard Styles.
A Scandinavian name but no clear race. His once-tawny skin had peeled away into islets of beige, and his neck looked almost ivory against the black of his vicuña coat. The coat hung loosely off a T-shirt that read, in large cherry lettering: I [love] DC. It was frightening to think T-shirts came in that size.
"Halldor, I fear, is the only one who thrives in this sort of miasma. Myself, I prefer your highly efficient American air-conditioning. Shall we, Mr. Cavendish?"
Some of the heat came in with us, and for a second or two the air seemed to be ionizing around us. Halfway down the hall, I could see Lily Pentzler going head-to-head with the caterer. Pausing to reload, she flicked her eyes toward me — and then toward Styles. A crease bisected her forehead, and then she began muttering into her sleeve, like a madwoman.
"Perhaps we might talk in the theater," the old man said. "The upper gallery, I think. More private." His step was sure and even as he climbed the carpeted steps, talking as he went.
"Such a nice little pastiche. Of course, a true Elizabethan theater wouldn't have a roof, would it? Or such comfortable chairs. All the same, quite charming. I wonder what play they're putting on now."
"Oh, it's ... Love's Labour's Lost."
"Well, isn't that apropos?"
"I wonder if it's modern-dress. No, I don't wonder at all. On that particular question, I have been quite driven from the field. Everywhere one goes now it's Uzis at Agincourt, Imogen in jeans, the Thane of Cawdor in a three-button suit. Next thing you know, Romeo and Juliet will simply text each other. Damn the balcony. OMG, Romeo. LOL. ILY 24–7. Oh, chacun à son goût, that's what I hear you saying, but does it rise even to the level of goût? I consider it, on the contrary, mere squeamishness. I have seen far more fearful things in my life than a doublet and hose. The sooner we inoculate our children against these terrors, the stronger we will make them."
Excerpted from The School of Night by Louis Bayard. Copyright © 2010 Louis Bayard. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Exhilarating…Bayard adds twist after satisfying twist... At its heart, The School of Night illuminates a glimpse into legend, assuring readers that this ancient classroom offered a curriculum heavy on secrets.”—The Washington Post
"Rich and rewarding...Mr. Bayard writes seamless prose and conjures the past with credibility."—The Wall Street Journal
"[A] superb intellectual thriller...The author's persuasive portrayal of undeservedly obscure real-life scientist Thomas Harriot, a member of the school, enhances a plot with intelligence and depth." -Publishers Weekly (starred)
"[A] compelling literary thriller" – Library Journal
"An entertaining intelligent thriller…fast-paced [with] several superb twists." –The Mystery Gazette
"[D]eftly rendered. . . . Bayard (The Black Tower, 2008, etc.) blends luminaries of history, lost treasure, intrigue and a double-twist conclusion into a highly readable concoction." – Kirkus Review
"Bayard’s latest. . . interweaves the antic comedy of the modern-day caper with the tragic and affecting love story of the past." – Booklist
“Bayard has crafted a deft, immensely engaging, and in the end, surprisingly moving novel” – James Williams, popmatters.com
Meet the Author
Louis Bayard is the author of The Black Tower, the national bestseller The Pale Blue Eye, and Mr. Timothy, a New York Times Notable Book. A former staff writer for Salon.com, Bayard has written articles and reviews for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Nerve.com, and Preservation, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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There are pivotal moments in Louis Bayard's glorious new novel, The School of Night, that hinge on the archaic, pitch-dark machinations of alchemy. No small wonder, I suppose, as Bayard is himself a bit of an alchemist (perhaps conjurer is a more suitable term), capable of transporting readers to foregone ages with an almost supernatural deftness. I first became aware of Bayard's work with 2003's "Mr. Timothy", an incandescently beautiful (and heart-wrenching) book detailing the later-day exploits of Dickens' Tiny Tim. Bayard's next two books, stunning both, are The Pale Blue Eye (which follows a young Edgar Allen Poe solving an arcane and terrible mystery while attending West Point) and The Black Tower (in which Restoration era Paris is brought vividly to life as the fate of Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI's long-lost son is relentlessly pursued). The School of Night employs a two-tier narrative: one thread takes place in modern times following a group of Elizabethan collectors and scholars as they try to piece together a mystery involving an invaluable long-lost letter, a hidden treasure and the legacy of a secret cabal of luminaries called the School of Night. The other plot line unspools in 1603 as one of the School's founding members, Thomas Harriot, a genius whose name has been almost forgotten in the mists of history, dabbles in matters both scientific and of the heart. Bayard does much to resurrect Harriot and his legacy, along the way providing a powerful love story that, through interweaving chapters, crashes headfirst into the story's modern-day plot lines. To discuss more of the plot would be a terrible disservice. Best to let readers simply revel in one twist and turn after another. Know that Bayard handles the modern tale masterfully, believably and with a level of humor sadly missing from most thrillers. And what of Bayard's Elizabethan passages, the ones involving Harriot? They are, simply put, transcendent. Bayard displays not a single weakness as a writer, but if he has one strength that shines above the others (and just about any other modern writer I can think of) it is this: His ability to summon long-lost historical time periods with uncanny immediacy. From the pitch-perfect cadence of the dialogue to every sparkling flourish of sight, sound and smell, Bayard is able to almost corporally transport readers through the veils of time. You are there. You feel it. Perhaps there is no better example than late in the book (after most of the plot threads have already been woven tightly together) when Bayard, by way of the lovelorn Harriot, leads us on a journey through a plague-choked London that is as harrowing as anything he has ever written. Grim, disturbing, and ultimately poignant, the scene - like all of Bayard's output - is a virtuosic performance. The School of Night - thrilling, funny, touching and sometimes heartbreaking - firmly cements Bayard's status among our finest novelists.
Elizabethan scholar Henry Cavendish declared the poem by Raleigh as genuine only to later be humiliated when it is proven to be a fake. His career dead, he takes whatever work he can scrape up to get by. His only friend is historical document collector Alonzo Wax, but Henry is stunned when his crony commits suicide and he is named as the estate executor. Before he killed himself, Alonzo informed Henry that he possesses a segment of a letter that discusses the secret School of Night, where five Elizabethan intellects heretically debated theology of the Black Arts vs. science. Henry leans that Wax revealed his secret to Clarissa Dale who claims a psychic connection to one of those late sixteenth century scholars Thomas Harriot the scientist. Antique book collector Bernard Styles insists the letter is his as he accuses Wax of theft. Soon a murder occurs and the Wax collection is stolen. Henry and Clarissa team up to follow clues to the North Carolina Outer Banks where a shocker awaits them as they follow the trail of Harriot and his lover Margaret Crookenshanks. This is a super amateur sleuth with a refreshing subplot involving the actual School of Night real persona; Harriot for instance was a genuine scientist and readers heard of Marlowe and Rolfe. The story line is fast-paced in both eras with the modern period containing several superb twists. Louis Bayard provides an entertaining intelligent thriller as readers travel with Henry have just begun in North Carolina. Harriet Klausner
I enjoyed the historical aspects of this book, but the plot is diluted by unstable characters.
I did enjoy this book and there are a few surprises along the way, but the ending was weak. It was as if the authorhad tired of the story and couldn't cone up with the energy to complete the story. The main character us a little annoying much like the ending. He rather floats along like so much flotsam and jetsom in the waters,letting it take him where it will,rather than taking hold of his destiny or his actions
Again Louis Bayard does it with a new mystery. Every step of the way he has you guessing until the end. What unfolds is sure to have you breathless!
Such a fun book! The School of Night is a really interesting look into both what Elizabethan thinkers were thinking about the big questions - God,mortality,etc - and the life of the literary "academic" today. Good story, well-written and fun settings in Washington DC, Nags Head, and London. Planning to send it to several relatives for Xmas...
The language and plot were stunning. A book to be savored. Witty, engaging, at times laugh out loud dialogue.
Louis Bayard has given us a rare treat -- a captivating tale that doesn't require hard thought or concentration but at the same time is unusually well-written. Hard-core thriller fans should beware that this may not be their cup of tea, but the arch, slightly frivolous tone should alert them from the start. As an extra bonus, a surprising amount of British history is included, which, according to my side trips to Google and Wikipedia (thanks to NOOK Color!) has been treated with startling respect for the truth.