06/18/2012 02:28 pm ET

"Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace": Divorce, Victorian-style

Kate Summerscale’s books are a balm to the wary narrative nonfiction reader, proof that not every good true story rests on a foundation of tweaked facts. This popular historian marinates herself in intensive research, but she doesn’t show off. If the real-life characters she’s writing about are passing a season in the French port town of Boulogne, then, with the grace of a novelist, she’ll sketch in the atmosphere of the town, from the hillside park their house overlooked to the sidewalks full of expatriate English children tended by French nannies. That bit of scene-setting may be no more than a paragraph, but flip back to the notes, and you’ll learn that she scoured three or four books to find those evocative details.

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