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Whitbread Award-winning biographer Glendinning (Trollope) sets her pensive second novel (after The Grown-Ups) in late-Victorian England, where 18-year-old Charlotte Mortimer escapes from her parents' suffocatingly genteel home and her father's semi-incestuous attentions by marrying Peter Fisher, a proponent of the new science of electrical engineering. In the summer of 1885, the couple leaves London for Hertfordshire, where the poor but ambitious Peter hopes to make his reputation installing a complete electrical lighting system in the mansion of Lord Godwin. Though fond of her serious, intellectual husband, Charlotte finds his lectures on the modern, rational world that electricity will create less compelling than the attractive Godwin's lighthearted enumeration of the natural wonders found on ``the inexhaustibly lovely face of the earth.'' She embarks on an affair with the nobleman, but the disastrous aftermath of the New Year's Eve debut of the electrical system reveals that Godwin is still bound by ancient prejudices; the bold future Peter envisaged-and Charlotte hoped for with somewhat less conviction-has not yet arrived. After an interlude in London, during which Charlotte dabbles in spiritualism but fails to find a viable means to support herself, she ends her painful odyssey towards maturity on an ambiguous note: the reader has no idea what she will decide to do, and it seems likely that Charlotte herself doesn't know. However true to life this uncertainty is, it typifies an artistic flaw that weakens the whole of Glendinning's thoughtful but rather bloodless text. Charlotte's narration is so restrained that we never become emotionally engaged by her plight, though her keen observations on everything from Victorian class prejudice to sexual hypocrisy ensure that the novel makes provocative, if never terribly compelling, reading. (Oct.)

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