Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"The Secret Pearl," by Mary Balogh

The Chick: Isabella Fleur Bradshaw - a.k.a. "Fleur Hamilton." Starving on the streets of London after fleeing from her obsessive cousin and trumped-up criminal charges, Fleur is forced to rely on the ultimate last resort to keep herself alive: prostitution.
The Rub: While she miraculously lands a job as a governess only days after selling her virginity, she is appalled to discover her new boss is none other than her first (and only) john!
Dream Casting: I read the description and thought immediately of Amy Adams - only slightly younger.

The Dude:
Adam Kent, Duke of Ridgeway. Dealing with frustrations in his personal life, he purchases a whore to vent his pent-up emotions on. Afterwards, taking pity on her (and feeling slightly guilty) he orders his personal secretary to hire her on as a governess for his daughter, Pamela.
The Rub: He's scarred from the Battle of Waterloo, but worse, he's married - to a woman who makes no secret of her preference for his younger brother, who was briefly Duke in his place while Adam was MIA after Waterloo.
Dream Casting: I was in a bit of an Enchanted mood while reading this, so I pictured Patrick Dempsey (with a scar), but Clive Owen would suit just as well.

The Plot:

Fleur: I need food!

Adam: I need sex!

Adam and Fleur: *unpleasant deflowering*

Adam's Secretary: You're hired!

Fleur: You couldn't have shown up any sooner, like, before I had to sell my body? Who's my boss?


Fleur: SHIT.

Matthew, Fleur's Creepy Cousin: Aha! Found you!


Adam: Hey, Matthew, creepy-pervs-whose-charges-against-their-cousins-are-totally-bogus-say-what?

Matthew: What? DAMMIT! *flees*

Adam: Fleur, you're finally safe, but we can never be together because I have a duty to my wife and my family.

Fleur: I understand.

Sybil: *throws self in lake* Splash!

Adam and Fleur: Hurray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Orphaned Hooker with a Heart of Gold
1 Perverted Cousin

1 Case of *cough, cough* Convenient Consumption

2 False Accusations

1 Cheating Wife

1 Caddish Younger Brother

1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar

1 Precocious Child

The Word:
In a word: exquisite. This book is probably my favourite historical romance of all time, and it's right at the top of the list of absolute favourite romances, period. And I knew this about fifty pages in. It almost made me want to go back and change all my previous A reviews because they weren't nearly on the same level with this one. It's that good.

Adam Kent, Duke of Ridgeway, comes out of a theatre and sees a woman in the shadows. He recognizes her as a whore, but a newly-minted one: thin, dull-eyed, and dressed only in a wrinkled blue silk dress, she offers no lures, uses no sexual wiles, or makes any real attempt to sell herself (pun intended). He purchases her anyway for reasons known only to himself. He buys a room in a cheap inn, orders her to take her clothes off and lie on the bed, and then he uses her. I really mean the word uses - he doesn't rape or (intentionally) hurt her, but this is no love-and-roses-and-miraculous-first-orgasm deflowering as is common in lesser romances. He has sex with her to vent his own lusts and frustrations and anger and gives no thought whatsoever to her comfort or needs. After the act is finished, he buys her supper and pays her triple her asking price.

However, after sending her on her way, he feels a strange responsibility for her. He knows she was a virgin when he bought her, and could tell from her behaviour that prostitution was her very last and very desperate resort. He decides to send his secretary to the nearest London employment agency to wait for someone matching Fleur's description to show up, with the intention of hiring her as a governess for his young daughter Pamela, who currently lives on his country estate.

Fleur, meanwhile, rouses herself from the depths of despair into which she sank after her foray into prostitution to visit said employment agency, and is overjoyed to be offered the job, although she is unaware of who her true employer really is. Hopeless and starving and on the run from nasty relatives, she had sold herself because her only option was survival. While she can't help but wish that the job offer had come only a few days earlier, she is determined to be the best governess possible and completely forget that one horrible night when she irrevocably lost her gentlewoman status and became a whore.

However, she can't forget. While her job is easy (Pamela's indulgent and lavish mother and elderly nurse insist the child is too delicate for rigorous learning), Fleur has terrifying recurring nightmares about the dark, ugly, scarred man who took her virginity for himself in a night of abasement and selfish pleasure. However, in the daytime she comforts herself with the fact that she will never see him again.

However, Adam finds himself obligated to return to his country estate when he hears that his wife, Sybil, is preparing another raucous and extravagant party for her select (and notoriously indiscrete) circle of friends in his absence. Their relationship is strained, mainly because she is a Big Fat Ho who takes several lovers but won't let Adam touch her. He decides he has to return to keep an eye on her - and also, secretly, to see how Fleur is doing in her new position.

When Fleur finally discovers the true identity of her employer, her feelings of horror and revulsion are beyond words. Frankly, she's about as unwilling as Sybil for Adam to touch her, although Adam makes no attempt to try. While she could always quit, she really has nowhere else to go and her nasty relatives could still be looking for her.

I think the main reason I adored this book is because it highlighted the difference between sexy and romantic. Lots of romances these days (mostly in contemporary but now in historicals as well), the two go hand in hand. Two people meet, fall in instant lust, have lots of sex and accidentally fall in love later. I prefer romantic, and Balogh shows how sexual attraction is good for romance, but not immediately necessary.

Fleur and Adam's first sexual encounter is one of the least sexy, attractive, or fun sex scenes I've ever read, and intentionally so. Although Adam is not cruel or hurtful, the context of the experience and Adam's self-gratifying method traumatize Fleur and leave her with a deep-seated fear not only of Adam, but of sex itself. Fleur, for several chapters after their reunion at Adam's country estate, is both psychologically and physically repulsed by Adam. None of this, "oh I do so hate that tiresome but secretly sexy manly man" hatred that almost immediately turns into passionate, uncontrollable attraction two chapters later, but serious, terrifying hatred. Seeing him makes her want to throw up.

The encounter isn't a cakewalk for Adam either. He almost immediately feels guilty for what he's done, not only because he cheated on his wife, but because he tried to lose his strangled emotions of self-loathing and loneliness in mindless sex, only for it to make him feel worse. While his marriage is pretty much a sham, he was in love with his wife once and he dotes on his daughter and so he resumes his duties to his marriage vows with all the strength he can muster.

The barriers separating Adam and Fleur are numerous and realistic and not at all contrived. None of this "I can't love you because your cousin's hairdresser's dog's groomer's brother killed my brother in a duel" bullshit. Adam and Fleur are intensely noble, loving, and, yes, moral people who are not willing to throw societal expectations and marital obligations to the winds in the face of their growing affection. But grow their affection does, and in wonderful, subtle ways. The Secret Pearl is a long book as far as romances go, so Balogh has plenty of room for Adam and Fleur to slowly and naturally lose their fears around each other and develop something more for each other.

All of this, of course, is paired with superb characterization and a gorgeously-described historical setting. None of the novel's villains (Sybil, Adam's brother Thomas, and Fleur's cousin Matthew) are permitted to be cartoonish, because that, in turn, would cheapen Fleur and Adam's own inhibitions. While the villains' actions are despicable and selfish, their motivations are undestandable or at least realistic - particularly with Sybil. With the first couple of chapters, I was convinced she was the Evil Whore Wife who cared only for her own carnal pleasure and whose fate was sealed from the very first Significant Dry Cough. However, by the end of the novel, while her actions are in no way less hurtful or immoral than they were before, her tragic history provides a reasonable and understandable motivation for her actions and makes her simply a misguided and sad human being with a story of her own, rather than a cardboard ho for the heroine to knock over on her way into the hero's arms.

Besides two sex scenes, and about a dozen kisses, Adam and Fleur share no other sexual contact. Since their first sexual act was so traumatic, their love for each other has to develop and exist independent of lust. It made the few moments when they were intimate that much more romantic and significant. This was a sweet, addictive, beautiful and satisfying read from start to finish, and I'll definitely be checking out Mary Balogh's backlist. It was not a very sexy read, but it was very romantic, and I found I enjoyed it more because of it. A+.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:19 AM

    The book is indeed hard to put down once you start to read it, but I really had a big problem with Adam; he did not convinced me that he is such a 'romantic hero' and that he really loves Fleur. Putting aside that fact that he willingly hurts Fleur at the beginning (despite the fact that he realizes at first thrust that she suffers; but does he stop? No. He only continues 'swiftly'=violently!!!), he is never really repetant for all the pain he has caused. He has some (a small amount though) of guilty feeling, that he puts fast aside once he finds a position for Fleur. He helps her indeed in getting a less hurtful life, but he is never convincing as a person in love. I mean, everything he does is well motivated by a certain feeling of guilt he feels, and by the fact that he is 'an honorable' man and tries to do always the 'honorable' thing (as he did it for Sybil as well), but as I see it, he would have done exactly the same for anyone in Fleur's situation. Therefore, there is nothing he really does only for Fleur, because she is who she is and because he loves her; it's just helping another person in need, who might have been anyone in fact.
    Now, if he had had nightmares about his guilt and about what he had done to Fleur, if he had put his pride aside when dealing with Fleur (e.g., last scene), if he had convinced her (and the reader) about his reasons to have been so cruel in the first chapter, then I would have probably managed to like him. But he does not seem to realize even until the end that he was indeed cruel and he marked Fleur for life in an awful way; he never finds Fleur's repulsion much justified and he imposes on her much too much. And he does say at some point that he recognized her as the love of his life at the first sight. And this is how he treated her (at the beginning), a woman clearly starving and scared? God helps Fleur in her future with him if this is how he treats the women he loves.
    And what about the non-sense of 1 year apart at the end, without much insight of how he has felt during their separation, if he really missed her as she missed him, or if it was just some occasional yearning, as I got the feeling. In fact, I got this feeling that Adam would have managed very well without Fleur without much pining or ache; he was fully motivated by what he thought to 'honorable', but from the beginning to end he remained a cold, distant and rather harsh man. Which, unfortunately is not what I look for in a romantic hero.