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REVIEW: Unveiled by Courtney Milan

Dear Ms. Milan:

I have heard such good things about your early Victorian-set novels that I kept meaning to read one. When the controversy over the Publisher's Weekly review erupted, I knew I would have to read Unveiled. While more confused than ever about that infamous review, I have been thinking a lot about the book since I finished it, about how different books appeal to different aspects of our reading character. Unveiled is a book that appealed strongly and distinctly to my intellectual side.

Unveiled by Courtney MilanAsh Turner always had a knack for the deal. He had seemingly infallible instincts in business and in people, and unlike men who deliberated and weighed options, Ash knew almost instantly whether he could trust a person or situation, and he amassed quite a fortune acting on those instincts. Ash had also made a promise to his father that he would look after his siblings, a promise Ash had always felt he had not really kept. While his father had been a successful mill owner, his death allowed Ash's mother to exercise her excessive zealotry (she gave her children whole Bible verses for names, which they shortened to one word), which ultimately resulted in his sister's death and poverty for his two brothers. Soon after Hope died, Ash left for India to make his own fortune, and by the time he returned, his two brothers, Mark and Smite, were homeless and alone in Bristol, unwilling – or unable – to talk about their experiences during that time. This only made Ash work harder to secure his brothers' happiness, which he felt could only be ensured once the family took its rightful (in Ash's view) place. Which is, unfortunately, occupied by Ash's fifth cousin twice removed, aka the Duke of Parford.

Privy to the fact of the duke's bigamist second marriage, Ash has petitioned the House of Lords to declare the duke's children illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit the dukedom, substituting Ash and his siblings in their place. And now Ash has arrived at Parford with his younger brother, Mark, in tow, assuring Mark that the estate will be a perfect place for him to finish his philosophical treaty on chastity (I cannot wait to read his book!) – not to mention a perfect time for Ash to ensure that the estate is in good working order and the accounts in tact before the House of Lords makes their final decision. Upon arrival, Ash spies among the servants waiting out front a woman he instinctively knew was destined to be his.

The woman, Anna Margaret Dalrymple, is the daughter of the duke who has remained behind in disguise as Margaret Lowell, nurse to her own ailing father, to ensure that the Turner brothers do no unnatural harm to the man standing between them and the dukedom. She should hate everything about Ash and his brother, and for a while she manages to maintain her disdain and her father's fragile health. However, Ash is the kind of man who has gotten a lot of what he earned by his innate charm and charisma, as well as the profound respect he pays to each person, regardless of station, education, or wealth. He knows what it means to be an outsider (he still feels like an outsider to his own brothers' close relationship), that money and station can purchase security but cannot guarantee it. Even though he believes Margaret to be a nurse, he regards her with deference and with kindness, making her believe that she has substance as a person beyond her title or name. With friends shunning her, fiancé abandoning her, father treating her as useless, and brothers off trying to persuade the House of Lords to their side, Ash's solicitous charm is ultimately more seductive than the humiliation his petition for her de-legitimation has caused:

"Do you know why my peers want their brides to have pale skin?”

She was all too aware of the golden glow of vitality emanating from him. She could feel the warmth in his finger. She shouldn't encourage him. Still, the word slipped out. "Why?"

"They want a woman who is a canvas, white and empty. Standing still, existing for no other purpose than to serve as a mute object onto which they can paint their own hopes and desires. They want their brides veiled.

They want a demure, blank space they can fill with whatever they desire."

He tipped her chin up, and the afternoon sunlight spilled over the rim of her bonnet, touching her face with warmth.

"No." Margaret wished she could snatch that wavering syllable back. But what he said was too true to be borne, and nobody knew it better than she. Her own wants and desires had been insignificant. She'd been engaged to her brother's friend before her second season had been halfway over. She'd been a pale, insipid nothing, a collection of rites of etiquette and rules of precedent squashed into womanly form and given a dowry.

His voice was low. "Damn their bonnets. Damn their rules."

"What do you want?" Her hands were shaking. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"Miss Lowell, you magnificent creature, I want you to paint your own canvas. I want you to unveil yourself."

And thus is the novel a series of unveilings: the revelation of the Dalrymples' illegitimacy, of the various relationships in the novel, of Margaret's self-discovery and the secret of her identity, of Ash's own secret, which he has not shared with anyone until he shares it with Margaret, and of intimacy between Margaret and Ash. Characters act as mirrors to one another, not necessarily reflecting truth, but rather confirmation of what characters see in themselves. When the old Duke of Parford looks upon his daughter, for example, he sees his own uselessness and projects it on to her. When Margaret initially thinks about her erstwhile fiancé, she sees her own unworthiness as reflected in his abandonment of her once her standing and inheritance were imperiled. Even Ash, who seems so very confident and certain of his decisions feels inadequate, especially when he looks at his brothers, who share an ease of kinship in which he cannot participate. Surface versus substance, innuendo versus meaning, station versus self – all of these relationships are examined in the novel, with deeper and deeper layers of awareness connected to greater happiness.

For example, when Margaret's friends deserted her, she took that as a sign of her unworthiness. Until, that is, Ash makes her feel that she is a real person completely independent from her superficial nobility. This revelation changes the way Margaret begins to carry herself and to pursue some of the old relationships she let slip away, and consequently some of those relationships do change. Not all of them, as this is not fairyland, but some of the connections that had substance before can be reconstituted in a different way. Similarly, relationships Margaret always took for granted – like those with her two brothers – suddenly become the subject of deeper consideration once the superficial markers of worth and value are stripped away.

Without a doubt, Unveiled is a smart book. Although the text does not identify him as such, Ash struck me as philosophically something of a Utilitarian (remember that both Mill and Bentham argued passionately in favor of equal rights for women, among other social reforms), focused on creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people in his life. The issues of identity and self-consciousness are good reminders of Enlightenment philosophies, as well as German idealism (Kant, Hegel, etc.) and romanticism. We tend to think of Victorian England as this stuffy, stagnant time, but in truth is was an exciting and dynamic time, philosophically, technologically, socially, and politically. These characters reflect evolving ideas about the self and society, and they are both idealists (and somewhat idealized) in their own way.

Which is why I wanted so much to love this book. To love it with the passion and the intensity with which Ash and Margaret love each other. However, as strong as this book was intellectually, I felt somewhat disconnected from it emotionally. I could almost feel the novel being built while I was reading, and while I could see the relationship between Ash and Margaret progressing, beyond Ash's initial conviction about Margaret, I felt that so much of their relationship was built on Margaret's adoration of the confidence Ash inspires in her.

Consequently, I felt led more than propelled through the book. For example, Ash tells Margaret a story about a tiger cub he adopted in India. He is so determined to win the cat's favor, he subjects himself to being bit by her, because if he "'could win this magnificent creature's regard, it would truly mean something.'" The allegory here is obvious, but Margaret must spell the message out to us: "He'd just told her that she was worth it — she and all her prickles." There are a number of such examples in the book, places where I feel that the lesson is being explained to me rather than simply implied, and even though I recognized its usefulness in Margaret's own process of self-discovery, it felt a bit overworked.

Many times during my reading I wished for more passion in the narrative, more of that same kind of emotional catharsis Margaret experiences. I kept thinking about how ashes are left after everything of substance burns away, and that image had a double edge for me: even as Ash and Margaret are both unveiled in their true form, there was a dryness to the narrative that made me feel like the passion had been burned away. Had that passion been present for me, this book would truly have soared. Without it, my experience was definitely positive, but not as profound as I wanted it to be and felt it could be. That said, I will definitely be reading about the other Turner brothers. B/B-

~ Janet

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

16 Comments

  1. Melissa
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 07:10:28

    You have captured exactly what I feel about Courtney Milan’s books. They’re very strong intellectually, providing plenty of material for analysis (an English class would have no trouble discussing themes and symbolism and structure, oh my) but emotionally, I often feel a certain detachment while reading her. She reminds me of Dorothy Sayers, whose early Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries were brilliant but a little cold. Then with the creation of her alter ego, Harriet Vane, something else crept in. Harriet’s character is a mystery writer like Sayers, and she actually has the realization that her work is more intellectual than emotional (Wimsey challenges her to take a risk and write a “flesh and blood” book). I always felt like Sayers herself was struggling with this…and then, with Gaudy Night, she succeeded in writing a book with so much intellectual force, and at the same time so much heart, that I still react emotionally every time I read it. I wonder if Milan will go on a similar journey, and I’m curious to see how she will develop as a writer.

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  2. Ellie
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 09:47:41

    I thought “Unveiled” was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. What you said about feeling disconnected from the book emotionally, even though you liked it intellectually describes how I felt about Courtney Milan’s first two books. So I tried this one, and it really worked for me both emotionally and intellectually.

    I really liked how Ash and Margaret both stayed true to their characters. There was something that I was sure was going to happen later in the book (trying to avoid spoilers) and was pleasantly surprised when there was no manufactured drama.

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  3. dick
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 10:13:03

    You have examined the book far more closely than I would wish to, but I too, thought it too carefully contrived. And, you know, characters in fiction, I think, have to show greater consistency than people in real life, for all the reader has is what the author chooses to show and 300 or so pages is often insufficient to explain inconsistencies of character away.

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  4. Dr. Zoidberg
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 10:43:55

    Could you explain a bit about the Publisher Weekly’s review? I don’t read PW regularly…

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  5. Maura
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 11:00:53

    I’ll add this to the TBR pile, and now I very much want to date a man named Smite, if one can be found.

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  6. Lynne Connolly
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 12:10:14

    Gosh, yes! I haven’t read this one but you said exactly how I felt about “Proof by Seduction.” Beautifully written, lovely large vocabulary employed, and very, very carefully constructed.
    But for me, the happy sigh wasn’t there. I really enjoyed the read, but was happy to spin it out over several days, to savour the prose.
    If you deconstruct it a bit, I found that “Proof by Seduction” was hooky for the first third, so that you had to keep reading to find out what happened next, then it stretched a little, then there was a lot of action after the first seduction scene, to keep the lovers apart for a while.
    I just read Olivia Gates’ new book, and it’s almost the opposite. Construction is a bit wonky, but oh my lord the woman can write passion!
    Nice that both kinds of authors exist and that the romance genre is so wide that we have this kind of choice.
    Does Courtney Milan’s style remind you of Lydia Joyce at all? Or is it just me? But some parts reminded me strongly of Joyce’s work. Maybe it’s because they both work (or worked, since Joyce hasn’t had anything out for a while) in the same era.
    Or maybe I just want another Lydia Joyce book.

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  7. Brian
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 12:35:18

  8. DM
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 12:52:36

    I value her writing precisely because she doesn’t spoon feed character emotions to her readers. Because I’m not told how to feel at all times, not every page is fraught with emotion, but when the story events build to emotional climaxes, I find them all the more powerful because the high points are earned.

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  9. orannia
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 13:57:12

    That is one fantastic review Janet – thank you!

    When the old Duke of Parford looks upon his daughter, for example, he sees his own uselessness and projects it on to her. When Margaret initially thinks about her erstwhile fiancé, she sees her own unworthiness as reflected in his abandonment of her once her standing and inheritance were imperiled.

    I have this on my TBR list, but between the excerpt and your above comments I think I will have to move it up :) This will be my first Courtney Milan book and I’m looking forward to it.

    Oh, and I find the Victorian era rather fascinating. So much was changing.

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  10. TKF
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 14:00:02

    @DM: I find her writing somewhat flat. Plots are fabulous, research seems to be solid, but I just can't seem to care about the characters. I don’t need to be spoon-fed every little emotion, but I need more than I get from her books in order to invest in them. I have this same issue with a lot of authors who seem to really value the “story being told” over “the telling of the story” if you know what I mean.

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  11. Lindsey
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 17:24:35

    While I have yet to read Unveiled (it’s sitting on my Kindle, waiting), you’ve perfectly expressed how I feel about Courtney Milan’s first two books. I have enjoyed all of them (the second much more than the first), but I don’t really connect with them on an emotional level. I almost didn’t buy Unveiled for that reason, but caved in the end, because she really is an excellent author, and despite my emotional detachment, I still find her books satisfying on an intellectual level.

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  12. meoskop
    Feb 02, 2011 @ 19:24:34

    Pfft. I completely disagree. I mean, I agree completely. Ok, I love this review because even though I was emotionally engaged and love this book like a kids & candy, I think it clearly outlines why you didn’t love it in a perfectly valid (and utterly wrong) way.

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  13. Brussel Sprout
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 03:57:24

    Sigh, I just read the excerpt of this on Milan’s website, and I know I’m never going to read it because the sound is all wrong. These aren’t Victorian gentlemen from England, they are modern Americans in fancy dress. The opening conversation I read between Ash and Mark was full of ideas and emotions that just don’t sound remotely like men of their time, place and situation.

    I’ve just read two really terrific novels, The Meaning of Night and The Glass of Time, both by Michael Cox (who has sadly now died). The books were published in 2007 and 2009, but are set firmly in the Victorian period, and Cox doesn’t set a foot wrong. He was steeped in the period (he was an editor of MR James’s ghost stories and an expert in Victorian literature) and he has captured the sensibilities of the time perfectly. They are both romantic books with love stories at their hearts, although one is tragic. Both books are complex books about inheritance, disinheritance, heirs and false heirs and wonderful characters.

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  14. Robin
    Feb 04, 2011 @ 14:33:56

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back here — I’ve just been slammed over the past couple of days, but I have been reading all the comments.

    @Melissa: Interesting about the Sayers books. I have some of them, but I have not read any. Now you’ve got me interested, though…

    @Ellie: I’m glad you were able to connect emotionally to this book, because it makes me hopeful I will feel that way about another of her books. And I agree re. lack of manufactured drama (and I think I know what you’re referring to there).

    @dick: What inconsistencies did you find?

    @Dr. Zoidberg: Hopefully @Brian answered your question (and thanks, Brian).

    @Maura: Yes! And I am SO excited about Smite’s book for his name alone, lol.

    @Lynne Connolly: I did not feel a resonance with Lydia Joyce’s prose here, because I find Joyce’s prose a bit too overworked (like really heavy black wrought iron), so I haven’t really connected to her books. I find Milan’s prose crisper, and if I did not know she was an attorney, I might have guessed from the book. I’m not sure, actually, if her voice reminds me of any other Romance writer. I’ll have to think about that a bit.

    @DM: I agree with your general point, DM, but that wasn’t really my issue with this book. It wasn’t — for me, at least — that the book lacked emotional subtlety, but more that I did not feel connected emotionally to what the characters were supposedly feeling emotionally. Does that make sense?

    @orannia: I hope you enjoy it!

    @TKF: Can you explain that last distinction a bit more? I think I know what you mean but am not certain.

    @Lindsey: I was thrilled to read such an intellectually strong book, although, perhaps ironically, that made my lack of emotional connection all the more evident, if that makes any sense. My gold standard, in terms of intellectual and emotional connection, is Judith Ivory’s Black Silk. Like Milan’s work, it’s a polarizing read, but I’m always looking for another book that hits me at the same levels as that one.

    @meoskop: LOL, I’m glad so many readers loved this book, actually, because Milan is such a smart and thoughtful writer I definitely want to see her continue to produce.

    @Brussel Sprout: I haven’t read the Cox books (although I will definitely check them out), but as I said in my review, I do not feel Ash and Mark are necessarily anachronistic — it’s more that I think we’re used to a certain facet of Victorian England filtering through our history and literature. That said, I think it’s virtually impossible not to import some of our own time into historical writing, since we are so utterly steeped in our own cultural moment.

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  15. DM
    Feb 07, 2011 @ 23:42:30

    @Jane

    That does make sense to me. Even with writers who work at Milan’s level–crystal clear prose, apt metaphors, deft plotting–I still don’t connect with every single book they put out. When the quality is this high, for me, it’s more about whether I relate to the themes of the book. In this case, I related to the heroine’s desire to be seen as valuable in her own right. Milan’s last book was just as well written and constructed, but I didn’t connect with it as strongly as with this one, and I put that down to theme.

    Your review, though, was perfect, because it describes the book–characters, theme, plot, prose–accurately. If only Publisher’s Weekly had done the same.

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  16. votermom
    Mar 10, 2011 @ 12:49:10

    Janet, thanks for your review — it made me read the book. I really liked the character depths, but the book as a whole didn’t work for me though. I think there were too many personal pet peeves hit. It’s a shame because the way she writes is lovely.

    @Brussel Sprout
    I know I'm never going to read it because the sound is all wrong. These aren't Victorian gentlemen from England, they are modern Americans in fancy dress.

    Yes, that was one of the things that annoyed me. Another big one was the servant disguise and the third big one was the resolution to the legitimation suit — that seemed unlikely and I wish the author had given me more reason to believe that it would happen that way.

    Another thing I find touchy, and I wonder if anyone else has that reaction, is the whole master romancing hired help trope. It’s very popular in romance, obviously, ever since Jane Eyre, but there’s a thin line between star-crossed love and opportunistic boss. So I wasn’t very impressed by Ash because of this.

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