"If I loved you, Fleur," [Adam] said, "and knew that you loved me, I would turn heaven and earth upside down [for you]"
I found Mary Balogh's THE SECRET PEARL a chronically addictive reading experience containing the right touches of an impossible, challenging road to love and featuring tortured characters that never really leave you. Unfortunately, I thought THE SECRET PEARL needed to balance the memorable characters and heart-rending love story with better pacing, prose and settings. A majority of this 399-page paperback amounts to meandering introspection. Granted, one of the advantages of literature includes sharing the thoughts of characters but some novels (often of a romantic nature) makes the introspection and thoughts very interminably exasperating. THE SECRET PEARL contains a lot of introspection and if it weren't for the uniquely endearing characters and their plight, I probably would have found the book pretty bad. Not your typical rosy romance fare, the characters and premise alone offer a worthwhile reading experience. Although the ending wasn't bad, again I thought it resorted to amateurish introspection instead of gripping plotting or possibly a chapter or two of marital bliss. The love here is mutually giving, and it isn't just the hero giving everything.
Rarely are romance heroes as interesting or honorable as THE SECRET PEARL's Duke of Ridgeway Adam Kent, and I thought the novel belongs to him. Adam's time with the English infantry at Waterloo scarred him terribly along his face and body, so he isn't handsome by the time our heroine Isabella Fleur Bradshaw meets him. Adam is vulnerable, and harbors insecurities of his own, though it isn't belabored. After a shocking opening scene in which Adam hurts Fleur -- knowingly, for reasons that are clear from the context -- Adam's vulnerabilities and his efforts at atonement afterwards really melt your heart. Also very much unlike the last romance I read (Joyce's VOICES OF THE NIGHT), the hero Adam here astutely infers the heroine's situation, figures out her pursuers, consequently takes steps to discover her complete history, and in turn, really helps her. THE SECRET PEARL's Adam Kent is a man of action, from beginning to end. I think I'm a sucker for a romance novel in which the heroine really detests the hero all the while he's doing everything in his power to help and protect the heroine. I'm not sure why or how, but I'm ineffably drawn to a heroine's intense, unwarranted hatred for her hero (not superficially insulting, imprecating). In this respect, THE SECRET PEARL resembles Hunter's superior THE RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and its heroine Alexia's unwarranted enmity for her hero. Even though the title of this book refers to the heroine, I thought the hero Adam was a hidden treasure in his own right. If only this novel offered something more in terms of prose, pacing, settings, and love scenes.
It was the first time he had seen her smile almost directly at him. And it had been a total smile, lighting up her face, making of its beauty a dazzling thing. He could have sworn that all the rays of the sun had been directed at her face when she had lifted it to the sky, even though the clouds had still been low and heavy.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
Our horribly-scarred Duke of Ridgeway Adam Kent picks up a prostitute from the street after the theater. It's been a long, torturous time for Adam since his last time with a woman and so he doesn't mind a reticent, uninviting prostitute. When taking off his clothes, Adam is ashamed by his unseemly, scarred appearance in front of a whore, which in turn drives him to anger and vengeance at Fleur's expense. Adam takes her, knows he's taking a virgin from the first thrust and yet doesn't relent. The prostitute turns out to be a deceased baron's daughter, Isabella Fleur Bradshaw. Fleur is running from a murder charge and a second cousin's obsessive pursuit who assumes the baron's title after Fleur's father passes away. Later, she learns of a theft charge mixed in as well. Scared, alone, fleeing the noose and hiding amidst London's poverty-stricken streets, a hungry, grimy Fleur turns to the last thing she has to sell: her body.
We learn more about Adam which makes this story's road to love, so challenging and heart-wrenching: Adam has a five year-old daughter and an estranged wife who cheats on him with his own younger half-brother. With the exception of that one time with Fleur, Adam has been faithful to his wife for five years despite his wife cheating on him with other men. Adam is all too aware of his wife's cheating.
Following Adam's violent coupling with Fleur, Adam feeds her and pays her thrice as much as the norm before parting ways. Nightmares of a cruel, scarred monster haunt Fleur while Adam takes steps to locate Fleur and employ her. Eventually, Adam's secretary hires Fleur as a governess at his estate in Willoughby. Fleur is unaware of the identity of the child's father when she accepts the governess position. She's thrilled to escape a life of prostitution.
The bulk of the novel takes place back at Adam's beloved home at Willoughby. Adam travels back to Willoughby for damage control when he hears of his wife's plans to invite a few notorious guests for a few weeks. Fleur is already there tutoring Adam's daughter Pamela, and soon, Adam's half brother Thomas arrives with Fleur's obsessed second cousin Matthew. The more we learn of Adam, the more your heart will melt for him. There's plenty of introspective musings both on Adam's part and Fleur's part during the time Adam's wife entertains many guests at the Willoughby palatial estate.
Again, THE SECRET PEARL's road to its happily-ever-after is challenging, and it isn't rosy. If you buckle up for a substantive love story, I found the love story and its lead characters very rewarding. I just wish better plotting, pacing, settings and prose equaled the heart-rending love story and the unique hero-and-heroine characterizations.