Secret Admirer takes place in Michele Jaffe’s patented Loony-Tunes Tudor England, which I became familiar with in this book’s companion, Lady Killer. In many ways both books are similar, but it lacks the light touch that made me enjoy LK in spite of myself.
Lady Tuesday Arlington is the abused and demoralized wife of a cruel man. She has been having terrible nightmares in which she is being chased. Tuesday, who is a professional portrait artist, immediately wakens from these dreams and paints the scenes she sees in them.
Lawrence Pickering, the Earl of Arden (it jarred me every time he is referred to as Lord Pickering), is the renowned hero of England’s war with Spain. He is also investigating a smuggling ring. He discovers the brutal murder of Lord Arlington, Tuesday’s husband. When he takes Tuesday to see the scene of the crime, she recognizes it immediately from her dreams. Why, just the night before she painted this exact scene. Which, of course, makes her look like the murderess. Tuesday is convinced that the murderer is somehow inside her head, communicating to her in her dreams.
That’s all the plot summary I’m going to give, because frankly there’s just too much going on, and I don’t feel that I have the strength.
Lawrence is a child of the streets who won his fantastic wealth and fame through hard work. This seems incredibly unlikely, but Jaffe succeeds in making Lawrence sympathetic. Ever since his most recent adventures in Spain, he has been faking his life, pretending to enjoy his wealth when in fact he is completely numb. It’s interesting the way Tuesday brings him back to life.
Tuesday starts out as a complete doormat and gets stronger as the book progresses. She is beautiful and talented and everyone loves her, except her abusive husband and father, to whom she is selflessly devoted. With Lawrence she stands up to a man for the first time in her life.
These characters are believable and flawed, but the way they spend their time in this book is aggravating. The plot insists that they bicker and argue, then make love, then have truly asinine Big Misunderstandings. You know, the kind of misunderstandings where a four-word sentence would have spared us having to read seventy-five pages of angst? Also, we seem to spend far less time with our romantic leads than we do with the villain, an idiotic and tedious serial killer who calls himself “The Lion.” I cannot underemphasize Jaffe’s talent in making homicidal megalomania deeply boring.
The plot is all over the map – exhaustingly so – which would seem to be the author’s trademark. The Lion is such a moron that it’s impossible to understand why Lawrence and Tuesday didn’t catch him immediately. Jaffe’s writing style is very unusual; sometimes it works but more often it doesn’t. She likes to throw details at you by the bucket, yank you from scene to scene, and involve you in long, convoluted sentences. She also seems to live for portentous foreshadowing. I think that several of the book’s annoying plot contrivances happened solely so that she could foreshadow them.
Lady Killer and Secret Admirer are two full-length novels, published back-to-back in one volume. I read them back-to-back as well, this one second. While Lady Killer seemed funny and outrageous and bursting with élan, Secret Admirer is leaden and frustrating. Why? The problem, I think is this: in Lady Killer, the characters were just as ridiculous as the setting and the plot. There’s no reason to take them seriously, and so the reader can float through the novel, enjoying the absurdity. In Secret Admirer, the characters are angst-filled and humorless. It simply doesn’t work to put serious characters in such a farcical setting. It the characters drag the setting down, and the setting makes the characters look embarrassed.
Secret Admirer, to be brief, just doesn’t work.