Desert Isle Keeper
Stephen King once said that publishers disliked novellas because they “they were too long to be short and too short to be really long.” And it’s not just publishers, is it? Read through reviews of novella after novella here at AAR and you’ll read of similar dissatisfactions. I can think of no one who does them consistently brilliantly… no one but Courtney Milan.
Ms. Milan’s novellas are, as a rule, superb. This Wicked Gift, The Governess Affair, and A Kiss for Midwinter are all small(ish) prose wonders, each presenting a fully-fledged story in less than 125 pages.
But my favorite novella by Ms. Milan is the first I read, Unlocked. This story is, tangentially, a part of the Turner series which I also love. The heroine of this story, Lady Elaine Warren, is a friend to Margaret, the steel-spined heroine of the first book in the series, Unveiled. Elaine, when the reader meets her, is ruined. Not by a seducing rake or a plummeting fortune, but by that most constant of devastations: bullying.
Ten years ago, when Elaine first came out, she laughed and society–and in particular a darling gent of the ton, Evan Carlton, the Earl of Westfeld–shuddered. Elaine’s laugh was a bray, an embarrassment, and an easy target for those looking to make their mark. Evan, then young and callow, made her a joke–Lady Equine–and, really, that was it for Elaine.
Now, Evan has returned to London, a very different man than when he left, and he sees, with terrible clarity, the woman she’s become:
She made herself easy to overlook. Her arms were drawn tightly about her waist, as if she could squeeze herself into insignificance. Her gown, a pink so anemic it might have been white, left her muted in the crowd of bright colors. Even the pale color of her hair, twisted into an indifferent chignon, seemed to declare her inconsequential. It was only his own memory that made her stand out.
For Elaine, Evan’s return is terrifying.
She had fallen into a nightmare: the kind where she entered a ballroom wearing nothing but her drawers. She’d had that dream before. Soon, everyone would start laughing at her. And when they turned to her en masse, the people who pointed and mocked all wore the same face: a thousand incarnations of Evan Carlton—now the Earl of Westfeld.
In the years since Evan left to–literally–climb mountains, Elaine has, much to her satisfaction, survived. She and her equally maligned mother–Lady Stockhurst is an astronomer whose fearsome intelligence make her the target of ridicule–continue to go to balls and to teas at which Elaine thinks every moment, every day, “You cannot break me. You cannot hurt me. You cannot even make me notice you.”
Over the next 150 pages–the story is 181 pages long–Evan and Elaine remake their story both for themselves and for the ton. Ms. Milan takes no shortcuts here. Evan knows he wronged Elaine grievously and yet, we the readers, privy to his thoughts, long for Elaine to see him as the man he has now is. And yet there is no way for Elaine to do so without first processing the anger and the pain his cruelty caused her. Elaine, like the very best of heroines, has learned to value herself. Evan must earn her trust, her respect, and, if the reader is very very lucky, her love.
The story of Elaine and Evan is riveting enough on its own. Ms. Milan adds to it the redemption of Lady Stockhurst’s reputation as well. The way in which Elaine and her mother are made whole in the eyes of those who have demeaned them for over a decade is so glorious… really, it’s just sublime.
So, if you have an hour or two and want to immerse yourself in a fiction that inspires, moves, and persuasively entertains, pick up Unlocked. It’s a rarity: a wallop of a tale neither too long nor too short. It’s a gift.