Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Secret Pearl by Mary Balogh *****

This is a new-to-me author, although she's been publishing for over 20 years. She has 5 titles currently in the AAR Top 100 for 2007.

The book starts out with an emotional punch: a man picks up a prostitute outside Drury Lane Theater, and takes her to an inn. We learn, in the course of conduct of business, she's a virgin - and he's apparently a ruthless, heartless and violent cad. It's a shocking scene to observe as the reader.

Then, slowly, their story unfolds as we learn what drove her to sell her virtue, and what drove him to take it the way he did.

Adam is the Duke of Ridgeway - he's a scarred veteran of Waterloo, who returned a sort of war hero after being presumed dead for a year. His younger brother Thomas, no longer the Duke, leaves for parts unknown - and Adam marries Sybil, and they have a child, Pamela. But all is not right with their marriage. Although she was his sweetheart before he left for the war, after his presumed death she took up with Thomas and they had plans to wed. Assuming Adam drove Thomas away, she married Adam, reluctantly, but never forgave him. I'll leave it to your imagination why she felt compelled to marry at all...

Fleur was the daughter of a baron who died when she was 8. She was raised in the family of the next baron, her father's cousin. After that baron's death, his son Matthew is now Fleur's guardian, and in control of her finances, of her life. She wants to marry the local Reverend; Matthew obsessively wants her for himself. In a near-rape scene, she fights back - and Matthew's valet is killed accidentally. Matthew convinces her it was murder and she will hang - and to seal the deal, he claims she also stole family jewels. She flees to London, penniless and homeless, under an assumed name, with only one thing that belongs to her - her body.

We have two tortured souls here who find each other, under the worst possible circumstances. Redemption seems an impossible goal for both of them. In a fit of guilt over taking her virginity, Adam has his secretary locate Fleur and hire her as his daughter's governess, without her knowing it was him - until he shows up, several weeks later.

The story contains some serious hot buttons for romance: adultery, for one, on both Adam's and his wife's parts. For Adam, we learn it was just the once. For Sybil, numerous times, numerous men. Adam continues to try to find some common ground with her, for the sake of their daughter Pamela; for her part, Sybil is a weak, tortured, selfish woman who suffers from melancholy as well as a respiratory illness.

The relationship between Adam and Fleur develops slowly over the course of the book - Fleur is at first traumatized and revolted by him, but not, as he thinks, by his scars, but by their first encounter. His intentions, however, are noble, and he truly wants what is best for her. In her he finds the first true happiness - his "pearl" - that he has felt with a woman. Slowly, excrutiatingly so, their friendship develops into something more solid and lasting.

At one point during the book, I felt let down by the heroine's actions - she seemed to have run away from Matthew without even trying to get any help locally, and as it turns out, she did have people she could have turned to. But as the story went on, I was drawn more and more into the romance, even the utter bleakness of the situation, knowing Adam wouldn't do anything to jeopardize his daughter's or his wife's reputations. The tension, the anguish of the situation make the ending that much sweeter when the HEA finally comes to fruition.

So it went from a 4 star to a 5 star read for me by the end, and I've ticked another Top 100 off my list and have a long backlist of books by Ms Balogh to glom, once I get that TBR pile under control...


Heather's Books said...

I'm glad you liked this book, however I hated it. In my opinion this was her worst book.

aunt rowena said...

wow - well, just goes to show! I understand, though. I have to read more of her to see how I feel in general about her books. I go with my last gut feeling when I finish a book.