I received The Secret Heart in a gift exchange for the Cannonball Read which is an online book club I belong to. It was selected for me by my “romance twin“, the fellow reader with whom I most often agree on books. It was interesting.
From Amazon: Adam, Earl of Bexley, lives to work. His only relief is the sordid savagery of bare-knuckle boxing. Not women, and definitely not a disreputable, scheming woman who dances in secret with such passion…Caro Small is desperate to escape her selfish family. Her only chance is a good marriage, and she intends to marry Adam—whether he likes it or not. But the more she schemes to entrap him, the more she risks trapping her own heart.
Despite that description, and having read hundreds of romances, The Secret Heart was a change of pace. The tropes and expected genre twists were still present, but Erin Satie balanced historical reality and choices that skewed a bit differently from most. Starting with a hero who is of less than average height and leads whose private pursuits are unusual, but understandable and give personality insight, it was the character elements I enjoyed most.
“Don’t look down, little bird.”
In terms of types, romance heroines are victims of circumstance or a wallflower, sometimes both. Caro needs to make an advantageous match to save her mostly undeserving family from financial ruin. She is very young, 17, and was raised by her father’s mistress whom he had planted in their household as a governess. This combination of family dysfunction and the older woman’s grooming have resulted in Caro being naturally calculating in her pursuits. Often, the victim of circumstance type is reduced to “poor thing”, but I really enjoyed the notion that Caro had been shaped into a basically well-intentioned, but crafty, quietly scheming individual.
Almost equally as compelling as Caro’s character is Adam’s. Eking out what freedom he can in his (exalted) lot in life, he may fall into the Protector hero type, but he is a Victim of Circumstance as much as Caro is. With an aggressively autocratic father, Adam is still young enough at 19 to be figuring out how to secure his own independence and to make good as much of an escape as is possible for someone in his world. In this, Adam and Caro fit together well, but their respective thorns make it far from comfortable despite their attraction and sincerity.
Satie writes well and with style, but the Adam and Caro’s story never really caught me emotionally. Their youth, while likely realistically in keeping with the setting, was a distraction to me as I considered both of them, especially Caro, children and I don’t want to read about sexually active characters that young. Written with both high stakes and a healthy dose of melodrama, The Secret Heart caught my attention more as an engaging experiment in romance than as an involving read. I’m not planning to follow up with the other novels in the No Better Angels series.
Sidebar with [SPOILER]: In the story’s final act, Adam asks Caro to be his mistress and he will reject his familial obligations in favour of their relationship. I have long wanted this to happen in a romance and Satie’s writing had been interesting enough that I hoped the plot would resolve itself in this way, but the ending took a turn for the traditional. It’s a shame since their lives will be a gilded cage and it would have been lovely for Adam and Caro to achieve genuine autonomy.