I took voice lessons for a brief few months when I was 14 or 15. They didn’t last very long, and now one of the only things I remember from them was that my voice teacher was overwhelmingly positive . . . to a fault. She was constantly kind and complimentary, praising me up one side and down another, so you would have thought my self-esteem would have soared under her tutelage. But it didn’t. After just a few weeks, I felt like I couldn’t trust her. I didn’t know which compliments were real and which ones were there because she was afraid to hurt my feelings. I became so grateful for my piano teacher who was formidably honest about everything (including the color of my fingernails). But when she gave me a compliment, I glowed with pleasure because I knew it was the real deal.
I have thought about that contrasting experience many times over the last three years as I’ve written about and reviewed books on this blog. When I’m hesitant to share something I didn’t like, I remember my experience with my two music teachers. I realize that if I only write glowing reviews, they will soon become meaningless because no one will know if I’m giving my true opinion or just gently smoothing over the surface, being careful not to disturb the waters underneath.
You’ve probably guessed from that little introduction that the review I’m about to write is one that would make my piano teacher proud because even though it might not be overwhelmingly positive, it will be honest.
Set in England during the Regency Era, Amber Sterlington has it all: beauty, wealth, and her choice of eligible bachelors. When she enters a room, other people notice . . . including Thomas Richards, who is in London for the Season before returning to his country estate in Yorkshire. Thomas is but the third son of a country lord and knows he doesn’t have a chance of winning Amber’s attention. But still, her obvious arrogance and condescension towards him make him burn with humiliation.
This arrogance affects Amber’s other relationships as well, including those with her mother, sister, and maid. She doesn’t recognize the damage she has done until she unexpectedly begins to lose her hair. As her condition worsens, she is shunned from society, and she realizes she doesn’t have a single friend or family member to turn to for love, comfort and support. After many months, and as her prospects permanently crumble, Amber’s heart softens, and she emerges a much kinder and wiser person.
Because of its focus on a rare health disorder, this is far from your typical Regency romance. I certainly appreciated the author’s boldness in branching out and tackling a difficult subject. However, there were times, many times actually, when I felt like the novel was using Amber’s condition as a crutch. Forming the plot around a unique disease does not instantly make a deep and touching story, and in the end, the originality was not enough to carry the rest of the book through some of its other flaws.
· For example, the pacing was very slow. This isn't unusual for a Regency romance, but the conversations and details that happened in the meantime were so uninteresting and repetitive that I had a really difficult time making it through to anything that was actually noteworthy. There was very little interaction between Amber and Thomas (and what does happen mostly occurs with a wall between them). When they finally see each other and speak face to face at the end, it made me a little uncomfortable, rather than happy. I guess part of the problem was that I just never liked Amber. At first, she was too stuck up and by the end, she was too humble. It wasn't that I felt like her transition was unbelievable, just that I didn't like either result.
· It also felt really preachy to me. That is an adjective I strive to avoid in my reviews, but in this case, I can't help myself. From Amber’s condition to messages about inner beauty to even comments about modesty (when Amber walks into the room in a revealing gown, Thomas chastises himself because he knows “he [is] the one in keeping of his own thoughts and ought not to blame her manner of dress for his own weakness”), I just felt like little ideas were being compartmentalized and forced onto me.
The book did generate some strong emotions from me, which I think says something positive for it. I liked Amber’s maid, Suzanne, and appreciated this thought from her, “I . . . believe that there are people in every society who would prefer the heart you have grown, to the beauty you left behind to find it.” (But it would have been more powerful if I hadn’t read almost the same sentiment several more times.)
On the flip side, I felt a strong dislike for Amber’s family, who, instead of rallying around her, banished her to Yorkshire so they wouldn’t be tainted by her appearance. Her father’s words especially made me so angry: “That you have to endure such a thing is unfortunate indeed, but I should think you would not want your family to suffer along with you. I should think that as a woman of feeling and sound mind you should want to protect us from such derision, not ask that we share it with you.”
As I've written this review, I've tried to think about how I would have altered it if I happened to personally know the author. Would I have mentioned the things I didn't like? Would I have focused on the things I did like? For sure, such a relationship would have made this review even more difficult to write, and I don't know what I would have done. However, in the end, I think my reaction to it was far simpler than I've made this review out to be. It wasn't so much like vs. dislike but just plain, old boredom. I guess it just wasn't for me.
I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.