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The Volcano Lover

by Susan Sontag

The astringently intellectual Sontag here turns to lush historical romance based on the real-life triangle of Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma, and Lord Nelson. The English ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the late 1700s, the Cavaliere is an exacting collector of antiquities and a frequent visitor to Mount Vesuvius. When his devoted wife Catherine dies, he becomes enamored of his nephew’s beautiful if vulgar mistress. Emma gladly marries her benefactor but finds real love when heroic Lord Nelson visits Naples. The story starts slowly, and the Cavaliere’s relation as collector to the collected Emma seems too obvious. But as Sontag warms to her subject, the novel becomes rich, expansive, and highly entertaining, right down to the slambang final chapters whose rapidly shifting voices suddenly provide new perspective. Hardly digressions, Sontag’s many aesthetic speculations wonderfully enhance the plot. A fine novel of ideas, this is sure to please venturesome readers of historical romance as well.