The Virgin's Secret
Victoria Alexander’s new series about three aristocratic brothers (what’s new?) is a sequel to her earlier The Perfect Wife, set four generations later in the same family. I chose to review it because the plot revolves about explorers and ancient artifacts, elements I usually like, but this novel left me underwhelmed.
Gabriella Montini is determined to discover who stole her late archeologist brother’s prize find, an ancient seal that may be the key to discovering the lost city of Ambropia, also called “The Virgin’s Secret” for its goddess. When Enrico Montini wanted to present the seal to the Antiquities Society in London, it had been replaced by another and he was shamed. As a result, he slowly went mad and finally died abroad while hunting the thief. He sent Gabriella a list of the men he suspected of having stolen the seal, mostly fellow adventurers/treasure hunters, and on top of the list are the Harringtons, the younger brothers of the Earl of Wyldewood. So Gabriella twice tries to search the Harrington’s library for clues, first during a ball and then at night disguised as a man. During the ball, she encounters the youngest brother, Nathanial, and embarks on a flirtation with him before disappearing; at night she is caught by the youngest Harrington sibling, Lady Regina, and then questioned by the whole family.
My issues with the book started with the hero’s name. Aristocrats in the Victorian period did not use exotic spellings to give their children individuality, and the historically correct spelling would be Nathaniel or Nathanael, the “el” bit meaning “God” in Hebrew and thus not thoughtlessly discarded. (You might just as well use the spellings Danial and Samual.) I found this seriously grating and tried to pretend the “a” wasn’t there, kind of reading the name as Nathani*l, but to little avail.
I was not happy with the heroine, either. She is described by the narrator and considers herself as intellectually brilliant (after all, she has a photographic memory and speaks nine languages, including several dead ones), but her actions show her exclusively governed by her emotions and unable to think a plan through. Because the Harringtons are at the top of her mentally unstable brother’s list, she has made up her mind that they are thieves, and so she considers each artifact in their house stolen and never doubts their guilt, even long after the Harringtons inform her they did not steal the seal and offer to help her with finding the true culprit. Even before she is caught in the library, she meditates on the fact that the Earl of Wyldewood is an honorable and honest man who would deal with her complaint fairly. So why doesn’t she address him directly, especially as her late mother was friends with the Dowager Countess of Wyldewood? There never was a heroine less fit for intrigue, and I found her ever-high emotional state and complete lack of self-knowledge tedious, and the claims made to her intelligence dubious.
The hero and his family are less of a mess, instead they are very one-dimensional. Wyldewood is honorable and responsible, the dowager is kind and generous, Lady Regina is a spoilt and selfish brat, second brother Quinton is an irresponsible adventurer and serial seducer who constantly grins (“in the wicked manner that had been the downfall of more than one unsuspecting woman” – I dubbed him The Cheshire Cat). Nathani*l is a more serious and dedicated antiquarian, but he also likes adventures (that bit about him was actually okay). When he wants to charm Gabriella, he goes into facile seducer mode, only to be rendered speechless by a single tart remark from her, which made him come across as rather amateurish. In addition, he is one of the men who tend to think of courtship/seduction in terms of a contest or battle: He likes women to be “defiant,” he is determined to be the “victor” in his and Gabriella’s next encounter, and he won’t “accept defeat” when she turns him down. Later he is all possessiveness and protectiveness, again with very little understanding of Gabriella’s character or consideration for her spoken wishes. This kind of hero has next to no appeal for me.
So with Mr. Battle-of-the-Sexes and Miss Never-Think-Before-you-Speak, I had very little to keep me reading. Although Gabriella never really grew on me, as I observed how all the men in her life keep important information from her in order to “protect” her (probably in a manner historically accurate), at least I saw some justification for her pigheadedness. Sadly enough, the one character in the book who understands her dilemma of being a female scholar in a world that has no place for her is one of the villains.
To my further grief, several characters kept secrets far too long, and the ending is prolonged for one of the most laughable causes I have ever come across, with Nathani*l coming across as an utter wimp for going along with it. Although the novel begins with quite a bit of sexual tension, amazingly it fizzles out in its latter half, and the novel barely makes the “warm” rating.
All in all The Virgin’s Secret was too uneven to please me, and I can’t recommend it. This was my first Victoria Alexander novel, and it looks as if it may well remain my last.