Weaving the 17th century of Isaac Newton with contemporary England, Stott mixes past and present in a heady brew of scholarship, an illicit affair and the insidious threat that defines the current age of terrorism. In 17th century Cambridge, soon after the return of the plague and the Great Fire of London in 1666, Newton pursues his experiments, his scientific interest married to alchemy: earth, water, fire, space and air transmutable to create all forms of matter. It is impossible to separate the two, critically dependent on information from "European secret societies, Freemasons and alchemists, groups of men in the Hague and in London, Cambridge and Paris". The secrets of the universe are at stake, the belief that the essence of life can be reduced to one invaluable formula. Science and alchemy are natural bedfellows in this century of experimentation, where nature's great secrets slowly yield to perseverance and dedication, certain groups charged with the safe-keeping of such powerful knowledge.
Modern day Cambridge is the repository of such arcane details. Elizabeth Vogelsang has dedicated years of her life to the study of Newton's accomplishments and is on the verge of an explosive discovery that will shock academia, tracking his movements like a modern day detective through the 17th century, identifying his close associates, questioning their loyalty to the cause and the mysterious deaths of five people at Trinity College. When Elizabeth is found dead near her cottage, the Studio, it is her son, Cameron Brown, who discovers the body. Since Elizabeth's book on Newton and alchemy is nearly finished, Cameron asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the final chapters, so that his mother's work may not be in vain. Lydia moves into the Studio, the affair rekindled, even though Cameron is married and has no intention of ever leaving his wife.
The relationship becomes a sort of haunting, Lydia wandering through Elizabeth's alchemic world, awakening to Cameron but equally seduced by the unfinished chapters. Cameron's work is shrouded in mystery. A Doctor of Neuroscience and a Cambridge Fellow, Brown has recently made a breakthrough discovery that carries sinister ramifications depending on the application. A series of attacks by animal rights activists have been focused on the scientific community, increasingly violent acts threatening Brown and his family. Even Lydia is at risk as recent events snap the story back into the present.
As Lydia's carefully constructed corner of academia is threatened by real world issues and she suspects Cameron's involvement in darker deeds, the centuries merge, three deaths in Cambridge begging for comparison with those in Trinity long ago. In the language of love, tempered with the reality of serious harm, Lydia floats between two worlds, submerged in Elizabeth's intentions, while vainly attempting to remain neutral about her life with Cameron. Their love imbues the novel with otherworldliness, Newton's secrets contrasted with the sweet seduction of romance and the incipience of violence. With a facility for time travel, the author renders this strange mixture of past and present believable and tragic. Luan Gaines.