What a strange – though certainly not dull – little story. The Portrait by Joan Wolf seems to be a reworking of one of her earlier contemporary stories into an historical romance (see note, below) – and if that’s not unusual enough, it involves circuses, kidnapped children, old paintings and so much horse riding… and cousin lovin’. It’s not good, but it’s definitely not dull.
Isabel Besson grew up in her loving father’s French Equestrian Circus – Le Cirque Equestre. For as long as she can remember, it’s always been him, her circus family, and her beloved Andalusian stallion, Alonzo, with whom she has her strongest bonds. But her contented life changes for ever after a performance in London.
Seated in the audience one night is Leo Sommers, the Earl of Camden, who sees his great grandmother’s face – familiar to him froma portrait hanging in Camden Hall – in Isabel’s. Approaching her after the show, the pair puzzle out the truth, realising Isabel, born Charlotte Lewins, was a much-wanted child stolen from her birth family by a maid, who sold Isabel to her adoptive father and mother. With that in light, and tales of her biological mother’s suffering ringing in her ears, Isabel agrees to go to Camden Hall, even though she has no interest in the Lewins. The fat purse promised to her – an inheritance from her biological grandfather – if she stays with them for the summer means her father will finally be able to leave the circus behind.
Nobody at Camden Hall likes Isabel, who refuses to slide into the abandoned skin of Charlotte and is unable to fit into British society. She does at least have Leo, her biological mother and Elisabeth, a friend she brings with her. But Aunt Augusta hates her lack of ladylike behavior; Leo’s cousin Roger enjoys mocking her while lusting after her, and her brother Henry, the Earl of Mansfield, believes she’s a fraud. Isabel hates the pallid and bland food, the restrictions of the social scene, and the constant gossip in the halls of her ancestral home. All the while, Isabel’s attraction to Leo continues to percolate, but he has been reluctant to consider remarriage since losing his first wife in childbirth. Will true love blossom?
Well. This is a story about cousins in love. Yep. The kinda wooden, dramatic feeling to the storytelling in question is not helped by the fact that it is cousins o’clock. Which happened historically, sure, but is still a bit awkward to read about. Sadly The Portrait doesn’t display Wolf – a veteran of the industry – at her best, but it’s a fascination regardless.
The most interesting thing about Isabel is her love of horses. Otherwise, she comes off as a bit childish and sometimes insipid. Leo is a nice guy who’s experienced tragedy and generally worships the ground Isabel walks on. Their romance would’ve been all right, without, y’know, the cousin thing. I liked the circus setting of the first few chapters, and wish the book had settled there instead of in high society.
This isn’t yet another Regency, being set in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century as revolution rages in France, but although that should inform the setting more – it doesn’t. Most of the characters are decent – if bland – sorts, except for Henry, Isabel’s brother, who is greedy, selfish, and murdered in the last fifty pages for a thin mystery plot. The culprit is revealed in an epilogue. So is the fact that Henry raped a thirteen year old, which is again explained in the epilogue.
There is an entire plotline revolving around Isabel and Leo’s fight over their replacing the family’s ancient cook. Her father starts a riding school on the property. Isabel flouts convention by riding late into her pregnancy, running the school, and breastfeeding her kid. She’s so nice that no one really ostracizes her for any of it.
Wolf’s love of horseflesh is what makes the book stand out from the crowd, but there’s not much else to say for The Portrait, other than that a little judicious editing may improved the brew. As is, it’s not a b ok I can recommend, despite its being oddly fascinating in its own way.
NOTE: Interestingly enough, this seems to be a historical retelling of Wolf’s The Portrait of a Love, in which Isabel is an artist painting a portrait of senator Leo. They might just be different books with the same character names, and if they are I’m intrigued. And no, I have no idea if they’re cousins in that version as well.