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by Mary Novik

How to write a review in 350 words that does justice to Mary Novik’s extraordinary debut novel Conceit? It’s nearly impossible, which is probably why the book’s catalogue bumph veers toward the purple, making it sound like an overheated historical bodice-ripper.

Novik plunges us into the London of the Great Fire of 1666 as the book opens. She makes us smell the smoke and feel the heat, just as she shows us, a little later on, the longing that Pegge Donne (daughter of poet John) feels for her first love, Isaak Walton.

The book, in its baldest outline, is pretty simple: a family drama with passionate overtones. Dashing young courtier-poet John Donne falls madly in love with Anne Moore, has 12 children with her, and vows to be buried next to her. But when he becomes dean of St. Paul’s, he decides to be buried there. Pegge resents this decision; nevertheless, when London burns, Pegge – by now the mother of 12 children herself – rescues Donne’s statue from the cathedral.

But this all sounds far too sketchy. Not only does Novik present us with Pegge’s own inner life, she also gives us John Donne rationalizing his decision not to spend eternity with Anne, and Anne, who died at 29 after 12 pregnancies, wailing “I know I did not die a natural death. I was slain by love, at far too young an age.” The shifting points of view can be confusing, but the richness of the book makes up for it. Novik’s descriptions are often startling but apt: she writes that during their father’s long sermons, the Donne children “lounged about in their minds.”

In preparing to tell this story, Novik obviously read major texts from the period. But the book is a vision of “my seventeenth century,” Novik writes in her acknowledgments, adding that she has “invented joyfully and freely.” The result is as delightful as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and as erudite and readable as A.S. Byatt’s Possession.