duchessKeira Knightley determined my next reading choice, which is as it should be. In fact, I wish that she would call me every so often and tell me what to read in her fantastic British accent. Did I mention that she’s one of my favorite actresses?

Anyway, I heard that her next movie will be The Duchess, the film adaptation of Amanda Foreman’s Whitbread Prize-winning biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the 18th century aristocrat who lived an extraordinary life and had more of an influence British politics than almost anyone else of her time, male or female. (Amazing, seeing how women had practically no political rights at the time.)

As the leader of the ton, the elite of society, she directed fashion (including bizarre ornaments to be worn in towering hairstyles and enormous ostrich feathers) and sold newspapers to a public hungry for tales—real or imagined—of anything she did. She wrote a novel and several pieces of music, was an accomplished harpist and left behind a record of letters and writings that is the greatest source historians have for the political climate of the time.

A passionate Whig, she pioneered a series of public relations campaigns to whip up support for her party that prefigured modern politics. She (along with her sister, Harriet) hit the streets, wearing herself to exhaustion going door-to-door to gain votes—an unprecedented role for women at the time. With her as the crafty hostess, Devonshire House became the Whig’s political power center of England, a salon where more meetings and deals came together at her tables than in actual Parliament. She wrote letters and used her influence with great men, including the Prince himself, to fight for the Whig cause.

She was a dear friend of Marie-Antoinette and visited the captive queen after the French Revolution had begun. She was a passionate student of botany, mineralogy and chemistry. She also lived an unconventional home life, allowing another woman, Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster, to become the third party in her marriage as it subtly shifted into a ménage-a-trois. She also racked up crippling gambling debts which she never completely escaped, had multiple love affairs and an illegitimate daughter.

For almost her entire life, Georgiana lived at the forefront of the social and political scenes of her time as one of its most famous, respected and (sometimes) reviled figures. I enjoyed reading this biography and its glimpse into the amazing lives the wealthy could lead in 18th century Europe: the travel, leisure and political opportunities they enjoyed boggle the mind today.

We all feel that our lives are so busy and full today, but to imagine how different things were back then—Georgiana, carrying her illegitimate child and having confessed a portion of her debts to the Duke, is sent away to roam through Europe and have her child secretly—it’s insane to think about.

Foreman writes gracefully and with a sense of humor, bringing Georgiana to life with her flaws and shining characteristics all intact. Readable and funny and tender and informative, this book was fantastic.

Although I didn’t know anything about “the Duchess” beforehand, I couldn’t stop reading and even teared up a little at the end with her death. This amazing woman who lived a life bigger and broader than almost any of her contemporaries, writes a letter to her deaf son, Hart, the night before her health starts to really fail, that touched me. Something about her words just struck me—one of her generation’s greatest members speaking to her child about a sort of immortality on the cusp of her own impending death:

I feel and fear that I give too much latitude to my pleasure in writing to you, but indeed no mother ever lov’d a son as I do you. I live in you again…I see in you still more perhaps than even in [your sisters] what my youth was.

atonementKeira Knightley convinced me to read this book. It wasn’t until the big, awards-season push for the movie that I even considered reading it, and somehow my love for La Knightley convinced me to check it out.

It’s also the first book in a long time that I–gasp–returned to the library, overdue. (The shame of owing $1.50!) So instead of finishing the original, hardcover, I had to borrow the the paperback, Keira movie tie-in version I’d bought my mom for Christmas.

I didn’t love it.

I thought the first half was incredibly well-written…sometimes distractingly so. As beautiful and gracefully as the McEwan can circle around a character’s thoughts and feelings and the multiple meanings of a single action (a woman changing dresses for a party; a child hiding a squirrel’s skull), it became a little too much too quickly for me. (Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that I was waiting in an airport, and then on a late-night flight on New Year’s Eve.)

There were passages I read over and over again–the chapters from the point of view of the mother were especially gorgeous–and I found myself writing down sentences and images that I loved. (I am still struck by the image of 15-year-old Lola twisting her tongue around a green-shell-coated candy bar.) The novel’s second half (mostly eschewing the interior for the exterior), weakened for me, and as for the twist ending…well…I’ll admit that I did gasp, and there was a power to the way it was handled, so straightforwardly as to be devastating.

Still, although I admired how masterfully it was done, I did not love this book. When I finish a book that truly moves me, I don’t physically want to let it go. I’ll look again at the cover, at the jacket copy, maybe flip through it again. I’ll stare at it, just letting whatever psychic essence it has soak up through my fingers, marveling at the fact that cardboard and paper, glued and stitched together, was able to transport me emotionally. I’ll hold it just as it held me, not wanting to break the connection, not just yet.

For Atonement, I simply put it in a priority mail envelope, addressed it to my mom and sent it.