The Secret Pearl (#85 on AAR's Top 100 Romances)
An AAR Top 100 Romance
originally published on August 15, 2000
The Secret Pearl is a book that grips you by the throat from the very first scene, and never lets you go until the end. The first chapter of this book is utterly shocking. A man we have barely met hires a prostitute we know nothing about for a night of his pleasure. As we discover, she is a virgin, and he takes her virginity unknowingly, and quite violently. It is a horrifying and miserable sexual experience for both of them, and we are left wondering if this man is supposed to be the hero or the villain. As it dawned on me that he is meant to be the hero, I began seriously doubting that he could ever be sufficiently redeemed. I don’t care for men who consort with whores, and to add insult to injury, it turns out he is married and quite deliberately committing adultery. If it wasn’t for the fact that I found myself morbidly fascinated by the astonishing opening to this book (and the fact that it is written by the incomparable Mary Balogh) I might have been tempted to give it up right there.
Luckily, I didn’t give up. Against all odds (and in one of the most surprising redemption twists I’ve ever read) Adam Kent, Duke of Ridgeway is slowly revealed to be not the morally bankrupt man he first appears, but in fact one of the most morally straight and decent heroes of any romance novel. What is so wonderful about this book, is that we discover Adam’s true nature and inherent goodness along with the heroine, who has every reason to hate him. Ms. Balogh never tells us that he is really a good man, she shows in his every small action, his every subsequent interaction with both the heroine and his wife. The realization of Adam’s true nature creeps up on you, and by the end of the book you understand not only how he came to hire a prostitute for the evening, but also how he could have treated her as he did.
While all the characters have depths that are only slowly revealed, Fleur Hamilton, the heroine is perhaps the least mysterious. We know there’s a deep dark secret in her past which led her to her desperate straits on the streets of London, but we are certain it couldn’t have been her fault, and we know her to be inherently worthy from the beginning of the book. We learn early on that she is a nobleman’s daughter, and in possession of an eventual inheritance. In fact, her character is the only slight weakness in this book, because once we know the whole story we are left wondering why she didn’t first appeal to her friends for help instead of running off to London where she didn’t have a chance. But this is a minor quibble – certainly the situation which forced her to run was sufficiently dire.
After their first terrible night, Adam is awash in guilt, and arranges to have Fleur hired as his daughter’s governess. As he is often away from home, Fleur doesn’t know who her benefactor is until it is too late, and she understandably jumps to the conclusion that what Adam really intends is for her to be his mistress. She jumps whenever he so much as appears in the room, and she has increasingly horrible nightmares about him. But Adam has no designs on Fleur. He was motivated by nothing other than altruism, and works hard to gain her trust. The relationship between Fleur and Adam is beautifully developed. Neither of them wants to have sex with each other again – she is too traumatized by the experience, and he too guilt-ridden. Instead they gradually become something approaching true friends, and still more gradually, they fall deeply and chastely in love. There is one incredibly powerful scene where all that happens is that their little fingers touch, and oh-so-slowly irresistibly entwine. It is the least of contacts, and yet the way Ms. Balogh describes the scene has more emotional punch than most full-blown love scenes do.
Adam Kent is a man who has learned the hard way that if he could marry again, he would only ever marry for love. Yet even his wife, who at first seems to be the easy villain, is not simply two-dimensional. Although she treats Adam horribly, she has had a traumatic past herself, and even becomes an object of pity. Their marriage is surprisingly complex, and the more we learn about it, the more we wonder how Fleur and Adam can ever arrive at the happily ever after ending we so desperately crave for them. Nothing comes easily in this story, and that is part of its strength. This is not a book where the daughter forms an immediate and implausible attachment to the new mother figure. This is not a book where the wife is quickly disposed of by the author; Adam remains married for most of the novel. Ms. Balogh does not make it easy, and consequently her characters suffer mightily. When Adam and Fleur are finally free to remarry and he comes for her, it is one of the most poignant and touching scenes I can recall. Avowals of undying love would normally seem excessively sugary and have me rolling my eyes, but here they completely reduced me to tears.
A Secret Pearl is, quite simply, one of the most romantic romance novels I have ever read, and when it was over, I felt spoiled for any others.