Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets: Illegititmate Daughters, Absent Fathers tells of a number of personalities from the first few decades of the 20th century. It starts with Ernest Beckett, aka Lord Grimthorpe (don't worry if you haven't heard of him), a member of the British aristocracy who had a talent for knocking up attractive women. His lovers, wives, and illegitimate daughters are the main focus of the story, which culminates in the romance between Beckett's daughter Violet Keppel (later Trefussis) and Vita Sackville-West, plus a guest appearance by Vita's more famous lover, Virginia Woolf. The secondary storyline deals with Eve, one of Beckett's mistresses who spent most of her life drifting from house to house as a genteelly impoverished guest. She carried with her a book and asked everyone she met to write or draw something in it. The book grew larger and bulkier, and Eve poorer and more eccentric, until she finally is left with nothing but her book in an old age home for the poor.
Holroyd ties everyone together neatly, while also weaving in the story of his fascination with all the Beckett connections, which comes from his connection to an Italian villa owned by Lord Grimthorpe at one time. Along the way he brings in other modern day characters, such as a woman who is convinced she's another illegitimate Grimthorpe and desperately wants to know the truth, and a scholar who passionately believes that Violet's literary contributions have been desperately overlooked and should be rediscovered by a new generation.
The book is often entertainingly gossipy; Holroyd scatters many apt quotes throughout the story from his many subjects (who were not shy about spilling their guts in letters). It's elegantly written. I read it quickly. The reviews have been glorious, calling the book brilliant and a landmark in biography writing, the pinnacle of a glorious career for Mr. Holroyd. I liked it, but didn't love it. I admired it, but wasn't dazzled by it. I'm not sure why--I think I felt sometimes like, "Why am I reading about these people?" especially the ones from the present day. I just didn't care about any of them. I guess I still would recommend it, though--maybe I just wasn't in the right mood. And like I said, the craftsmanship is impeccable, so you can at least read it to observe that. May you like it better than me.
This will be the last book I write about for the year, I suspect. My nine best list will be coming soon. I know, you can't wait, can you?