The Painted Rose
I started this debut novel with considerable anticipation. Sadly, however, despite the Georgian setting and back cover copy hinting at Gothic overtones, The Painted Rose didn’t come even remotely close to living up to the hype. Frankly, the story and setting here are so generic that the action could have taken place anytime from 1750-1920 and those promising Gothic overtones really turned out to be melodrama. I kept imagining these characters saying “we’re doomed, doomed!”
Brilliant painter Lucien Delacourte is both devastated by the deaths of his wife and child and down on his luck. Once a favorite of the French king, the artist accepts by necessity an offer to tutor a young English noblewoman in the art of painting at a remote estate. Arriving unannounced, he is astounded to discover that his pupil – one Lady Sarah Essington – wears heavy veils completely obscuring her face.
Disfigured after an accident years earlier and mortally afraid of other’s reactions to her appearance, Sarah remains in isolation at the estate tending her beloved gardens and allowing no one – not even her loving mother and brother – to see her face. She wishes to learn to paint in order to bring color to her botanical sketches and her indulgent brother is more than willing to comply by hiring Lucien, an artist Sarah much admires. But what Sarah and her overly protective brother don’t know is that Lucien’s extreme guilt and grief over the fiery deaths of his family have left him emotionally unable to pick up a brush and paint. Still, teaching Sarah the basics of painting aren’t beyond his reach and teacher and pupil begin their lessons.
Of course, each is drawn to the other. But both Sarah and Lucien have secrets and, even more importantly, both are so emotionally tangled that their developing relationship is anything but straightforward – especially given the constant interference of Sarah’s e-v-i-l sister-in-law who wants the handsome painter for herself.
Everything here is over the top and, sadly, not in a good way. Let’s start with the characters themselves: Tortured artist; physically and emotionally scarred heroine; overly protective, guilty, and extremely remorseful brother; evil, selfish, nasty, mean sister-in-law; drunken cad with distinct sociopathic tendencies; and a random cast of servants ranging from benign to unspeakably evil. These characters, each and every one of them, are beyond stereotypical and actually veer more into caricature territory than anything else. Okay, so you don’t meet a heroine everyday who wears veils, but the reasons behind the veils are more than familiar – Sarah is just a bigger drama queen.
Then there’s the “I-can’t-yes-I-can” emotional shennanigans indulged in by both Sarah and Lucien that had me mentally screaming “oh, just get over yourself!” more than a few times. Add in the evil, evil, evil doings of said sister-in-law, said drunken cad, and random others, and you’ve got a mess of melodramatic goings on that left me both rolling my eyes and gasping for air.
On the positive side, Donna Birdsell exhibits a distinct ability to weave a story. The problem here is that the one she’s telling is downright lacking. Still, her prose itself gives me hope that if the author can move beyond the stereotypes and embrace her period a bit more enthusiastically – why she bothered with the Georgian setting is beyond me since she makes no effort at all to make hay of this unique (for romance novels, anyway) period – I think a novel by the author might be worth reading.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ms. Birdsell’s next novel. But, regretfully, this high-priced debut ($6.99!) isn’t recommended.