- Release Date
- December 2012
Miss Elsie Stanhope resided in Nottinghamshire, an area so rich in titled gentlemen, so felicitous for marriage-minded mamas, it was called "the Dukeries." Indeed, Elsie had been betrothed since childhood to the heir of a dukedom. She had no expectation it would be a love match. Still less that she would enter into a shockingly scandalous affair with an altogether different sort of lover. And the very last thing she imagined was that the mysteries of his birth would be unraveled with as many unforeseen twists and turns as the deepest secrets of her heart.
Jan 23, 2012 [ OFFICIAL REVIEW ]
157 people found the following review helpful
I would like to nominate this book for "most deceptive back-cover-blurb" award of the year. While I was interested enough in the description to read the book, nothing prepared me for what an emotional, surprising and courageous book was hiding between the covers.
Elsie Stanhope cannot sleep at nights. Following the death of her twin sister in her sleep when the girls were young, Elsie cannot bear the thought of putting herself in the same place and risking the same fate. Thus, she wanders her country home until dawn, and naps when and where she can, much to the bemusement of her very sympathetic servants. All her life, Elsie has been betrothed to Lord Hathwaite, a family friend, and is preparing for her birthday ball where the engagement will be formally announced.
In honor of the event, Monsieur Desmarais, the renowned French muralist, has been contracted to paint a grand mural in the family ballroom of one of Elsie's favorite childhood memories. It is during one of her night-time rambles that Elsie encounters Monsieur Desmarais' enigmatic young assistant, Andre.
From the first, the two share a connection that defies both convention and their own natures. Where Elsie is almost infallibly positive, chatty and happy, Andre is selectively mute, most likely depressive, and finds his only happiness in painting. That is, until Elsie's nightly visits. For the first time in his life, Andre has found someone who treats him as an equal, neither overlooking his affliction nor treating him like an imbecile, but who respects him just as he is. If only she weren't so beautiful and so innocent that she thinks nothing of spending the evening alone with him dressed in nothing but her nightgown, they might be friends. But from the first, he wants more. But if the difference in their classes doesn't make for enough scandal, Elsie's looming betrothal means that nothing can come of the love that is rapidly growing between them.
But when Andre dares to reveal that he can indeed speak (though still only in certain circumstance and with certain people), he begins to share with Elsie his own secrets. Not only is he wholly responsible for the stunning painting, but his name is not in truth Andre. He is Alexander Wilkinson, and at the age of ten he was sent to an asylum by his father because of his inability to speak and declared dead to his family and friends. This and his terror of speaking means that Alexander has never claimed his birthright—as Lord Hathwaite, the oldest surviving son of the Duke of Kingston.
I can't say I was terribly surprised to learn that Andre was, in truth, Kingston's son and the man to whom Elise should be betrothed. What I never expected, however, was what a complex and unique character he was. Unlike so many heroes I've read lately who are more austere and whose real emotions are held largely in check, Alexander wears his heart right on his sleeve. And it all belongs to Elsie. Though he is nearly totally alone in life, when Alexander loves someone—his mother, his mentor or his Elsie—he loves them completely. Because of this, despite the sheer terror and agony it causes him, he is willing to sneak uninvited into a masquerade ball in order to share a single dance with Elsie (in one of the most endearing scenes you'll ever read), and willing to forego his birthright in order to protect Monseiur Desmarais. But while his love for others gives him strength, it also makes him enormously vulnerable, and it is that streak that so often nearly proves his undoing when he realizes he has to fight for what has been taken from him.
It is also interesting that, outside of this story, I'm not entirely sure I would have liked Elsie as much as I did here. That's not to say there is anything specific that I saw as a flaw, but she is not normally the kind of character to whom I am naturally drawn. Nor would have I guessed that her particular gift of innocent optimism would have touched Alexander so deeply. But, as I said, this is no ordinary story, and the connection between these two is far from conventional. This is not one of those cases where the leading couple balances one another, or compliments each other. Elsie and Alexander complete each other, and even at the lowest point in their relationship, there is no question that, having met, they would self-destruct without the other.
Even though Alexander's father is a villain out of a 19th-century gothic novel, he was never a caricature. The terror he instilled in both his surviving sons (Alexander and his younger brother, Oscar, to whom Elsie was formerly betrothed) is heart-rending, and the way he is able to manipulate Elsie and her family when his plans are threatened is masterful. Similarly, the scene where Alexander finally gets the chance to confront him was so stark and moving as to be unforgettable. I really appreciated the fact that we got to see the effects of the Duke's nature on his family, most significantly the fact that Alexander may have inherited more than his facial features from his father. The final few scenes between Alexander and Elsie are some of the most harrowing of their romance because of this and make the end of their story even more rewarding.
The secondary characters and storylines are wonderfully detailed, as well. Alongside the trials and triumphs of Alexander and Elsie, we are treated to the inner thoughts of Elsie's family, from her widowed father who is slowly coming to terms with the loss of his wife, and her spinster aunt, who is far from the retiring sort and embarking on adventures of her own, and Alexander's long-suffering brother, Oscar (please, let this be a hint of further books with this cast of characters!). This is a fascinating story from start to finish full of hidden histories and moving family secrets.
As you might guess, this book isn't always easy reading. I thought one of the most impressive parts of this story was the fact that it wasn't afraid to shy away from the darker aspects of its characters or to highlight their faults and failings. They become so human that, by the conclusion, I was no longer thinking of them as well written, but as people I had known for years. I miss them now, as a matter of fact. There were twists and turns in this story that I didn't see coming and the whole plot was simply well told, without a great deal of angst, despite some of its subject matter.
All in all, I was spellbound, and emotionally invested in every aspect of this story from beginning to end. The romance was intriguing, the unconventional subject matter came as a breath of fresh air, and the characters were unforgettable. Don't judge a book by its cover—or cover description—and check this one out for yourself.
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