Emma Donoghue writes the sort of historical fiction that makes one unsurprised that she’s a historian first. This isn’t meant to be a criticism! But it can be crucial to know what you’re getting into and set your expectations appropriately.
Life Mask is a fictionalized biography of 18th century English sculptor Anne Damer, but it might be better characterized as a historical novel about upper class English social politics of the later 18th century, as viewed though the lens of an interconnected set of characters: Damer herself, her unlikely friend actress Elizabeth Farren, and the Earl of Derby (yes, of horse race fame) the long-time suitor and eventual husband (after his inconvenient wife died) of Elizabeth Farren. The book is structured much more as a biography--wandering along the paths of their lives, dramatizing key events and summarizing others--rather than a novel with a clear and compelling plot arc. And the reader should definitely not expect it to have the shape of a romance novel, even though Damer does achieve a happy romantic partnership at the end with writer Mary Berry. (There are no spoilers in history, and their partnership is historical fact, though the precise nature of it is more ambiguous in the historic record.)
Having set those expectations, I really enjoyed Life Mask, and even enjoyed the ambiguous uncertainty of how Donoghue would handle the same-sex romance aspect. The majority of the page time is spent on the friendship between Damer and Farren that becomes so intense and so well-known that there was open speculation about whether it had a sexual component. Damer already had a whispered reputation of “too much love for her own sex” and Farren eventually broke off the friendship after satirical publications made explicit reference to her connection with Damer. But in Life Mask this unhappy event proves to be a wake-up call for Damer that her feelings for certain women in her life are erotic and possessive as well as including the sort of intense romantic expressions that were considered acceptable by society. Donoghue presents a detailed and believable study of the contradictions of a culture that praises women’s romantic devotion for each other, but only up to a point.
But the bulk of Life Mask focuses on the political and social details of life among the English upper classes during the era of the French Revolution, and if you haven’t come for those details then you may find it a very long journey to get to Damer’s happy ending. Now me, I love historical novels that immerse me in the details of specific periods and events through the lives of fascinating people. This is the sort of book that, in my youth, helped me pick up much of my background understanding of European history (and especially British history). And if you have loved those same sorts of books, I highly recommend Life Mask as an addition to the mosaic.