A Secret Affair
Mary Balogh closes out her Huxtable series on an oddly uneven note with A Secret Affair. At her strongest moments, she brings readers the story of two mature, intelligent lovers told in the graceful, subtle prose I’ve come to love from Balogh. And at other times? Well, readers might well wonder if this novel should have been titled The Huxtables go to Crazytown.
Readers meet the Duchess of Dunbarton and get drawn into her world from the very first page of the book. Hannah Reid, still relatively young at thirty, spent eleven years married to a man more than 50 years her senior. He died and she has observed her year of mourning. Beautiful, mysterious, and accumstomed to holding court among her crowd of male admirers, Hannah has a somewhat scandalous reputation. She dresses all in white and arms herself with a glittering array of diamonds, doing nothing to dispel the whispers that follow her. Privately, readers get to see another side of her as she visits with her girlhood friend who has come to London from the country, but this is not the Hannah seen by the ton.
As the novel opens, Hannah has decided to take a lover for the season: Mr. Constantine Huxtable, to be exact. The sinfully handsome Constantine is just the wicked lover that Hannah has decided she wants – at least temporarily. With techniques that almost seem culled from a Regency version of The Rules, Hannah plays games with Constantine. She leads him on and then pulls back. It’s the sort of thing that might drive a reader crazy, except that Balogh writes it so well. These initial scenes show so much of Hannah and Constantine’s characters that they really did draw me right into the book. I did not always like the leads, but they certainly held my interest.
When it comes right down to it, Hannah may play games, but when she knows that she has Constantine’s interest, she doesn’t drift into euphemisms or silly blushes. She goes for what she wants. In some ways, the scenes leading up to Hannah and Constantine starting their affair are just as hot as the sex scenes themselves. There is major chemistry there. Hannah and Constantine both embark upon an affair that neither one intends to lead to anything serious – but, of course, plans can change.
Indeed, up until about page 100 or so of the book, I thought I was reading a mature, rather unorthodox romance. And I was enjoying just about every moment of it. However, the author then starts retreating into all sorts of old familiar, overused romance motifs. They don’t do much to enrich this plot, and many of them caused me to roll my eyes. Without giving outright spoilers, let’s just say that you’ll get to see:
- adorable waifs
- redeemed “fallen women”
- lots and lots of happy Huxtables returned to show the reader just how blandly happy the earlier couples in the series have become
- psychobabble, ahead-of-their-time social plans, and politically correct terminology that would all be completely at home in a 21st century discussion
- so many small children and pregnant women that one might be forgiven for thinking the Duchess of Dunbarton moonlights as a midwife
- various revelations about the Duchess’ first marriage which will feel both familiar and ridiculous to those who have read enough historicals
Truly, it made my eyes roll and many scenes would make me wonder aloud, ‘Did I just read that?!”. The adventures of Hannah, Constantine, and the Huxtables just seemed to grow progressively more ridiculous. And there was a little feeling of betrayal there, too. Just as I thought I was reading a novel both beautiful and innovative, the author suddenly switched gears and started forcing me down the overly trodden paths worn out by gazillions of other Regency historical authors. It was a disappointment.
Even so, this book has its great moments. It starts off strong and, even in the later parts of the book, the author still mixes some powerfully emotional scenes into the Huxtable family treacle. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, though, because one goes from generic family cuteness to emotion that cuts deeply enough to make one teary. Even though parts of this book really annoyed me, the stronger portions stand head and shoulders above much of what I read in other books. For that reason, A Secret Affair deserves at least a qualified recommendation.