Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl works, despite the unconventional start
Feb 6, 2008
Review by Rebecca Huston
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:A good, thick romance that demands a bit more than usual from the characters.
Cons:Most will be upset by that opening chapter.
The Bottom Line: A romance that has plenty of emotional punch, and romantic leads that have some real problems to overcome.
Things have been a bit rocky lately around chez Telynor, so I've been relying on an old standby to get along with the hours. Namely, I read novels, and most of the time, I keep the subject to historical romances and the like -- I know that there won't be any nasty surprises in them, and there is always a happy ending. Like Catherine the Great (who ordered that all theatre productions presented to her have a happy end), I like to know what I'm getting into.
Recommend this product?
One of my favourite romance authors continues to be Mary Balogh. Nearly all of her romances are set in the Regency (1800-1820) period of English history, and she does manage to keep the anachronisms and outrageous plot devices to a minimum. And every now and then, she goes and twists the original genre into something very unusual.
The novel opens with the aristocratic Duke of Ridgeway leaving the theatre, and noticing a young woman. She's not a gentlewoman, that much is clear from her crumpled silk dress and plain cloak, but there's something that catches his attention, enough to engage her for a sexual encounter -- one that is traumatic for both parties. It's one of the most cold-blooded accounts that I've read in fiction, and one that most readers of historical romances will find distressing.
As we quickly find out, Fleur is not a casual woman of the gutter. The duke has made a terrible blunder, and to his credit, he does try to make things right. He engages Fleur as a governess for his young daughter Pamela, sending her to the isolation of his estate in Dorset. And he hopes, having done the 'right thing,' tries to promptly forget about her.
More easily said, as most complications go, and when his duchess, Sybil, is throwing house parties that are outrageous even by Regency standards, the duke finds himself returning home -- and to Fleur.
Fleur is profoundly grateful to have been rescued from the life of a prostitute working the streets of London, and her new surroundings are elegant and comfortable. Her young charge, Lady Pamela, is a bit of a willful brat, more spoiled and cosseted by her mother and nanny, but Fleur is smart enough to handle her student with care. Her only difficulty is with the duchess, who suspects that Fleur is nothing more than a common doxy. And then there's Fleur's memories of her rough encounter with the duke, and the little fact that nearly everything that she?s told is a lie... After all, what sensible person would hire as a teacher for a very young child an accused murderer and thief?
This time, the hero, Adam Kent, the duke of Ridgeway, is of the category known as 'the scarred hero.' He's survived Waterloo, but was declared a casualty of the war, and came back home to find that his younger brother Thomas not only has assumed the title and duties of a duke, but also was busy wooing his intended bride, Sybil. Adam resumed the title, told his brother to clear off, and married Sybil after some convincing. By all rights, life should be good for the duke by now. To say that Fleur and Adam have trust issues is to put it very mildly.
There are plenty of twists in this one, starting with the return of Thomas Kent to the family home and seeking to resume his affair with Sybil. The man who caused Fleur to flee into London's streets is there as well, Matthew Brocklehurst. Finally, there is Sybil, Adam's wife, extremely beautiful and delicate, who is the one obstacle for any sort of happiness for the duke.
How all of this resolves is what makes the story interesting. And despite some of the reviews that I've read, I really did enjoy this one. The emotional level is high, what with both the duke and Fleur being genuinely likeable characters, and their actions reflect their thoughts. It?s this tension that runs throughout the novel that keeps the momentum going and that Balogh is smart enough to keep them both within the culture of the times. Divorce was nearly impossible for the landed classes in Regency England, and social ostracism was the usual result. While I could see how the story was going to turn out nearly from the start -- something that tends to make me fling a book at the wall in frustration -- but this time, I didn't mind so much. Both of the characters are adults, and while the duke does come off as being rather high-handed in his treatment of Fleur, the fact that he learns from his mistakes is a real plus in a novel of this genre.
Of the secondary characters, the only one that really gave me difficulty was Sybil. She?s one of the most petulant, annoying characters that I?ve come across in fiction, capable of great self-delusion and I kept hoping that she would trip on the stairs or something. Unfortunately, she's pretty much a one-note character, and doesn't change throughout the story. Too, the mystery of Fleur's background is more of the melodramatic sort, and the initial meeting between the two main characters goes against the conventions of historical romances, and is more of a rape than a seduction -- something I suspect that was intentional on the author's part.
Despite the flaws, it's still a good read. Balogh's research and ability to create a believable setting is top-notch, and I found myself actually hoping that things would turn out right for the couple. Adam Kent is a hero that has more baggage than most of what is found in romance, but he also learns from his mistakes, and is willing to give up love for the sake of his daughter's well-being and happiness. I don't see that in novels much more these days, and it's a nice change. The publisher, Bantam/Dell, has been bringing Balogh's back-list of novels into print again, and it's been a chance for me to rediscover this author. Compared to most of the novels being published in this genre, it's a refreshing change. In this new edition, there is an author's forward, and an excerpt from Simply Love.
Four stars overall, and a good book to while away a rainy afternoon with.
The Secret Pearl
1991, 2005; Bantam Dell Publishing
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