Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand: A Review!

A tragedy that occurs in a hospital for the insane in Frankfurt, Germany, will have repercussions across decades and eras. Several weeks after the death of a female patient in a terrible fire, the poet Algernon Swinburne follows a mysterious woman through the shadows toward a remarkable event at once enthralling, stimulating, and terrifying beneath the streets of London. Years later, at the start of a new century, a struggling young artist, Radborne Comstock, is introduced to a ravishing beauty who immediately becomes his muse, his desire, and his greatest torment. It is a legacy of pleasure and madness that will be passed down to his grandson, the dilettante actor Valentine Comstock, who is plagued by disturbing and increasingly erotic visions. And in the present day a journalist named Daniel Rowlands is seduced by the bewitching and mercurial Larkin Meade, who holds the key to lost artistic masterpieces, and to secrets too devastating to imagine.

What connects these men -- and others whose grand destinies are to imagine and create -- is one woman. Eternal, unknowable, the very ideal of beauty and desirability, she exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of time, a sensuous dream of flesh and fantasy to inspire or destroy, an immortal lover ... or an angel of death.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; First Edition edition (June 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061051705
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061051708

It was as though someone had given him a lens that could miraculously illuminate the sea. Within a green world, prismatic things flickered and flew and spun: rubescent, azure, luminous yellow, the pulsing indigo of a heart's hidden valves. All were so brilliant he could see nothing clearly, yet he sensed-no, he knew-that behind the wall was another world: he could hear it, cries like seabirds, a rhythmic roar of waves. He could smell it, too, an odor so fragrant and rich his mouth filled with sweet liquid. His eyes stung; he blinked back tears, pressed his face against the stone with tongue extended, trying to steal some sweetness from this rock.

What a beautiful novel. Gorgeous incandescent writing spiralling through three storylines spanning two decades and two generations. Two connecting storylines involve mad painters haunted by elusive fey women but are they the same woman? Within this four part novel, you enter into the world of Victorian England just as American born painter Radborne Comstock meets Evienne Upstone a woman who has modeled most recently for some of the painters in the much talked about Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her reputation includes driving fellow painter Jacobus Candell into a state of madness by which there is no return. 

When we meet Radborne's grandson, Valentine Comstock, a half century later, the reader soon discovers the connecting thread between the lives of grandfather and grandson and this theme of erotic dreams of a woman who may or may  not exist if only in their mind. It seems grandfather Radborne painted some very erotic paintings of Evienne that grandson Valentine keeps in his possession much like another young man we meet in another storyline taking place in the current day. For instance, in contemporary London an American writer, Daniel Rowlands is researching the legend of Tristan and Isolde resulting in his meeting Larkin Meade but is she real and does she exist anywhere besides inside his erotic dreams? The reader will have to wait until the end for answers to these artistic questions. 

'Mortal Love' contains traces of the eleventh and twelfth century poem/medieval tale of the tragic love story between knight Tristan and princess Isolde. Author, Elizabeth Hand, deftly incorporates the struggles of artists haunted by the desire to capture the elements of beauty and art within their muses. They become so obsessed that their muses, fey women, lovers, drive them to madness because capturing their essence on canvas is never enough to bring them true peace within themselves.  

I highly recommend 'Mortal Love' to anyone who enjoys painter/muse love story novels. What makes Mortal Love original in context and nature is how Elizabeth Hand weaves fairy tale elements of myth and Celtic lore juxtaposed against an almost science fiction novel. The Victorian England storyline contains real life Pre-Raphaelite poet, Algernon Swinburne whose reputation definitely preceeded him. He was elfin, drunken funny man who comes off likable when he could have easily been a character whom the reader dislikes and feels sorry for.  Also, I loved the mentions of paintings by Sir Edwarde Burne-Jones and poetry excerpts by Yeats and others.