Book review: The Affair by Gill Paul

The Affair
The Affair

The steamy love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is not the only drama creating sparks on the set of the iconic film Cleopatra in 1961.

And a young historical adviser, fresh from the cloistered walls of academia in London, is about to become caught up in events more dangerous than she could ever have contemplated.

Gill Paul’s new and excitingly original novel brings to life all the glamour, tensions and politicking of this notorious, big-budget movie in a story that bristles with energy, passion and dark, deadly secrets.

Using a wealth of research and some first-hand anecdotes from British actors John Gayford and Francesca Annis, who both played key roles in Cleopatra, Paul sweeps us back 50 years to the bold, brash backstage shenanigans of the Taylor-Burton film classic.

From Liz Taylor’s extravagances and Richard Burton’s scandalous passion to the Cinecittà film studio’s exotic elephant enclosures and the vast warehouses full of costumes and props, The Affair is a superbly atmospheric and addictive peek behind the scenes of a film that captured the essence of its time.

When 26-year-old historian Diana Bailey arrives on the set, she has left behind her lecturer husband Trevor, a man 18 years older than herself, and a marriage that is in serious trouble.

Trevor, who believes a wife’s duty is to look after her husband, was vehemently opposed to Diana spending six months in Rome but it was an opportunity she simply couldn’t refuse. For the first time in her life, she has a new challenge in the wider world rather than in the ‘dusty little part’ she knows.

But tensions are running high on a set that is more Hollywood on the Tiber than ancient Rome and Alexandria. The film is in financial crisis and a media storm is brewing over the Taylor-Burton relationship.

As Diana adjusts to her new life, she strikes up a close friendship with Helen, a young make-up artist and good time girl, and finds unexpected solace in Ernesto Balboni, the charismatic Mr Fix-It of the film crew.

But Helen mixes in dangerous company and is harbouring a dark secret, one that threatens to cast a long shadow over Diana’s life …

Paul’s beguiling and compelling story captures all the thrilling and sometimes tawdry realities of life on a film set with its warring egos, inherent glamour and fascinating backstage detail as well as delivering a pulsating parallel love story to the famous Taylor-Burton romance.

A gripping read perfect for those lazy summer days!

(Avon, paperback, £7.99)