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55-Nov-Dec-2011
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A-A Book of SecretsNoted biographer Michael Holroyd (best known for his studies of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw) chronicles the many women in the life of Lord Grimthorpe (Ernest Beckett). A Book of Secrets marks the last volume in a series that includes Basil Street Blues (2000), a memoir, and Mosaic (2004), part-biography, part-autobiography.

The Topic: The setting: Italy's Villa Cimbrone. The protagonists: the daughters, the fiancée, and the mistresses of Lord Grimthorpe. They include Grimthorpe's daughter, the novelist Violet Trefusis (best known for her affair with Vita Sackville-West); Eve Fairfax, subject of a Rodin sculpture and Grimthorpe's fiancée; and, in the present day, Catherine Till, who, like Holroyd, wants access to Grimthorpe's papers so that she can determine if she is his illegitimate granddaughter. But the real protagonist of this biography-cum-memoir is Holroyd himself, for it is his appearances in the book and his reflections on biography that animate this study of love, familial ties, and identity.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 258 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780374115586

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"A Book of Secrets didn't just overcome my reservations; it buried them under a landslide of deftly deployed fact and feeling. This book is a richly marbled meditation not only on the lives of several remarkable women but also on the art of biography itself." Dwight Garner

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It is written with the kind of elegance, ease and simplicity possible only from a master craftsman who has flown far beyond any learning curve and is relishing his free fall. He carries us as if on a magic carpet from one character to the next, and one time period to the next, with consummate grace. Holroyd is a kind of Fred Astaire on the page, his many steps becoming one grand, profound design." Toni Bentley

Telegraph (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]n elegiac work: a testament to the significance of hidden stories and marginal lives. It is also a book about the labour of recovering those stories and the craft of retelling them." Daisy Hay

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Reading this book is a little like walking through a hall of mirrors into the final party of Proust's great opus. ... The terrain where aristocracy and bohemia mingle is one of which Holroyd is a past master." Lisa Appignanesi

Independent 4 of 5 Stars
"Michael Holroyd is one of our best known writers, yet one of the most mysterious. ... It is written with Holroyd's characteristic charm, a combination of sympathy and gentle mockery." Carole Angier

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At the beginning of A Book of Secrets, Holroyd starts again with some fairly obscure historical figures. But halfway in, when the writer appears as a character himself, he switches suddenly to present tense and the reader is blown away by Holroyd's talent." William Kist

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"It's curious that his self-proclaimed swan-song ... is a wisp." Lisa Levy

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"It is important, [Holroyd] once suggested, to annoy the reader. And in A Book of Secrets, Holroyd's portrait of the lives of three minor English figures, he frequently achieves it, apart from intervals of delight." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

Holroyd refers to his loose trilogy as "the confessions of an elusive biographer," and, indeed, reviewers generally seemed as captivated with the author himself as much as with the subjects of A Book of Secrets. That the septuagenarian Holroyd insists this will be his last book only adds to the mystique. Although critics writing for English periodicals described the book as enchanting, reactions were less uniformly adulatory on this side of the pond. The occasional naysayer noted that the Vita-Violet love story has been told a thousand times before and that Holroyd's puffing Violet's novels, which he thinks are unfairly overlooked, grows tedious. But most readers will find themselves bewitched by the cast of clever female characters and by the romantic Italian villa haunted by a biographer at the top of his game.