A rough start makes All My Secrets a difficult book to begin with, but a charming second half is the reward for those who can make it through that rough patch.
New York, 1898. When the wealthy Arthur Stanhope III dies at the age of forty-seven, it causes no end of turmoil for his family. Not only must they manage the emotional fallout of losing their patriarch, the terms of his grandfather’s will bestow the family company and the vast majority of the inherited wealth on the nearest male relative, a reprobate cousin. Stanhope’s widow, Sylvia, is left the house, an expensive-to-maintain yacht, his personal items, and a trust fund. His nineteen year old daughter, Adelaide, is left a small trust, and his mother Junietta is left to their care. Sylvia realizes there is no time to waste. She will have to launch Adelaide into society even as they are restricted by the long mourning process demanded of them. If a wealthy husband can be found for Addy before anyone realizes they’re practically destitute, there will be little disruption to the girl’s life and future.
Junietta, like many people who have never wondered where the next meal is to come from, sees this as an opportunity. She had been miserable living life as a society wife and is convinced Sylvia can’t have enjoyed it much either. If Junietta has her way, they will sell everything - the yacht, the mansion, the furnishings, and the art in the house - and launch Adelaide on a grand adventure, like college and a marriage for love rather than money. Never mind that Junietta’s own adventure had ended in catastrophe, that she is dependent upon her daughter-in-law because she spent her own trust fund on her charitable foundation, and that she and Adelaide are two very different people. She is determined Addy choose a path beyond societal expectations.
Sylvia has no intention of letting that happen. She works with the young partner in the law firm managing the estate, Howard Forsythe, to discretely sell what she can, all with the hope of buying time to find Addy a rich husband. Addy is willing to go along with this scheme, but she does hope her mother can find her a man she will at least like. The elderly widower - roughly her father’s age! - and the boorish heir she is initially introduced to are emphatically not the person she wants to marry.
In a bid to get her way, Junietta begins to tell Addy and Sylvia the story of her past. It’s a sordid tale of an affair with a stable boy, an unplanned pregnancy, and a marriage of convenience which put her under the thumb of a cruel tyrant. Will spilling her secrets result in Addy learning from her mistakes? Or will Addy follow the same path of seeking security through a cold union made for money rather than love?
This is a moralistic novel that showcases the evil of the Robber Barons and the unholy excesses of the Gilded Age. The privileged Junietta is our primary tour guide/authorial mouthpiece for this journey. She has, through her charitable foundation, given away millions of Stanhope dollars, which she labels blood money due to the actions of Arthur Stanhope, the founder of that wealth. She is vocal in her disdain for the lavish lifestyle of the family while benefitting from it. For example, she never removes herself from the household to a modest dwelling of her own, even after her son grows up and her husband dies. Instead, she gives away the money that would have provided her with independence and uses the familial connections to the rich and powerful to find donors and board members for her charity. It disturbed me that Junietta was demanding sacrifices of Addie and Sylvia that she had never made herself.
Junietta is also the primary conveyer of the Christian faith in this novel. For her, witnessing to her family primarily consists of telling them God will forgive them their numerous sins if they will simply repent. Oddly, I never felt Junietta was one for repenting of her own sins - she felt badly enough about the sex/pregnancy and a time when she had helped spearhead a deadly family rift, but she never repents of the relationship with the stable boy that led to so many problems and was clothed in lies and deceit, or of lying by omission to her husband and the hurt that caused him, nor of the way she charged through life self-assured she was right when she was more often wrong.It could be I just don’t appreciate the interfering, boisterous, rapscillion elderly character but I found Junietta an especially irritating example of this trope.
I endorse everything Junietta gives lip service to believing - faith, Christian charity, that unethical business practices should be called out along with worker abuse, that gap between the workers and employers in this era was deplorable, and that women should be allowed to vote, hold jobs, and be independent - I just didn’t think she was a good spokesperson for any of that.
Conversely, Sylvia would have made a lovely champion for those causes. A thoughtful, patient, courteous, and quietly courageous woman, she understands the practicalities of what Junietta espouses far more thoroughly than Junietta herself does. We don’t get her history until the halfway point of the novel, but Sylvia’s backstory shows that even as a young girl, she was an obedient, caring daughter and a morally upright individual. I don’t need my heroines to be either of those things, but it makes a nice contrast to Junietta, who expects of others what she doesn’t do herself.
At the start of the story, Adelaide isn’t a person. She’s a quiet, shy mouse of a creature who, by her own admission, couldn’t tell you a single opinion she holds, even for something as simple as a favorite color or flower. In the second half of the story, she blossoms into a charming young woman interested in the suffrage movement who is compassionate to everyone around her, and wanting to marry for love. I liked Addy, even when she was reticent and just discovering who she wanted to be, and I liked her even more as she became a secure, independent individual with a sense of purpose and strong ideas of her own. I wasn’t very excited about her romance at the end of the story since I felt she still had some growing up to do, but as it was more a happy for now than a happily ever after, I could accept it.
I struggled with the focus on Junietta at the start of the novel as well as with how faith is often depicted through her words and actions. The latter part of the story makes up for it, with Sylvia and Howard Forsythe showcasing a less judgmental version of piety and Addy growing into a charming person. I would recommend All My Secrets to long-time fans of the author or those who don’t mind wading through a bit of a slog to get to the good stuff.
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“What follows next is the Forced Seduction scene. Sigh! I had heard these were popular in romance novels written in…
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I know, but personally I’d rather have a list than nothing, if it’s not too much trouble.
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It’s a possibility, although it wouldn’t be very visually appealing :(