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REVIEW: The Virtuoso by Grace Burrowes

Dear Ms. Burrowes:

I have been anxious to read your books since The Heir came out and circumstances (and other books) have always interfered with that goal until this month.  I bought The Virtuoso the day that it came out and sat down one evening with great anticipation.  The sad fact is that there scarcely seems a page goes by that does not include some kind of historical inaccuracy. The unstated invitation is to enter the book and put aside any form of reality and simply immerse oneself in the Burrowes world, as it is constructed.  The voice is lovely but the period feel of this story ranges from Regency to Victorian (both early and late) to even modern day sensibilities.   There is no resemblance to the Regency period as written by Heyer, Austen or even Quinn.

 The Virtuoso Grace BurrowesI can’t really catalog all the errors in the book and while I am a historical rube, there were obvious ones such as the hero, Val Windham being referred to constantly as Mr. Windham.  This is explained later that it is at Val’s insistence but people who do know he is a duke’s son refer to him as Mr. Windham before he expresses his desire to be plain mister.     Val did not have a valet despite coming from a wealthy titled family and having quite a bit of money of his own. Instead, his friends such as a son of an Earl and another gentlemanhelp him dress and undress and ready for his bath.  In other scene, the landed gentry friend actually shaves Val and unbuttons Val’s pants for him.  Val is highly regarded for own two piano factories and being a wealthy “merchant.”  This is a duke’s son, the youngest, but a member of the nobility, and he and all of his friends (nobility and gentry) are doing manual labor refurbishing his own estate.

There is a certain nonchalance in which class is treated. For instance, Val dallying with a maid in a friend’s home. Val didn’t seem the type to exert his power over lowly help and take advantage of her in that fashion. Instead, it is just another example of the fluidity of class in the Burrowes book. It’s a modern sensibility, at times reading like a contemporary rather than a Regency set historical.

Ellen, the widow, baring her feet and ankles to dangle her naked feet in a pond next to Val, whose breeches are rolled up around his bare calves. Then he whips off his shirt and uses it to dry her feet.  It is the country and Ellen is a widow, but it seemed odd. They are mere acquaintances although they both feel an attraction toward the other but this scene is on the heels of Ellen chiding Val for using her christian name without her permission.

This propriety mismatch occurs throughout the book. At one point, Val is sitting with Ellen, at night and alone, with her in her nightgown and with Val’s arm around her. He muses that perhaps he should have written to her after stealing a kiss but then acknowledges that it would not have been proper:

Now he wished he’d written, though it would hardly have been proper, even to a widow.

Val often runs about with just a shirt that he sheds at any given moment but notes:

Val quirked an eyebrow at his friend, who had foregone cravat and waistcoat in deference to the building heat. “You’re in dishabille.”

Later Val and Ellen are lying outside during the day on a blanket.  They nap in a spoon fashion.  They awaken and proceed to touch each other intimately, with Val pulling up Ellen’s dress and Ellen removing Val’s shirt.  There is no concern exhibited by either that servants or individuals working on Val’s home just a walk away could come upon them.  Even in a contemporary, most individuals aren’t so brazen as to engage in public coitus like this without even a smidge of concern.

The plot is this.  Val is a virtuoso of the piano but after his brother died, he began suffering pain and discomfort in his hand.  He is advised to not use his hand and it is suggested that he may not be able to play piano again.  Rather than resting it, as instructed, so that he may play piano again, Val decides that he can do gross motor skill activities such as laboring which includes roofing and other refurbishments of an estate he won in a card game.  (As an aside, was there a delineation of fine v. gross motor skills at this time?)

Ellen is the Baronness Roxbury, Roxbury being one of the oldest titles short of the monarchy.  She lives on the estate that Val has won and apparently met Val a year ago where they flirted and shared a scorching kiss.  She also grows flowers and makes soaps and lotions.  These she sells in the village from a wagon.  There is some secret about her percuniary difficulties.

Ellen and Val rekindle their attraction when Val tries to come to terms with his infirmity.  Val tells Ellen that he can’t offer for her because of his crippled hand, but he does want to dally with her.  About half way into the book, a suspense plot is introduced.

Another drawback is the huge cast of characters.  There are so many people in this story and it is quite the challenge to place how they are all interrelated. For instance, Nick is a character referred to in the beginning as having overprotective tendencies toward Val. He’s a friend but why should he send his brother and the sons of another friend to “spy” on Val?

Val extended a hand, recognizing the tall blond fellow from his friend Nick’s wedding to Darius’s sister Leah just a few weeks past.

Nick himself does show up for a scene in the latter part of the book along with any number of men who may have appeared in previous books (or not).  When the story is just about Val and Ellen without all the extraneous people, it’s much easier to catch the threads of the story.  And there is a lot to like in this book.  There is some lovely imagery such as when Val is sitting next to Ellen who is in her nightgown and wrapper on the back porch of her home and she is rubbing salve into his inflamed left hand.

As she worked, he felt tension, frustration, and anger slipping down his arm and out the ends of his fingers, almost as if he were playing—

HIs arm is a barometer for his feelings.  Everyone recognizes it before Val despite it being spelled out for him by his doctor/Viscount friend.  His identity is that of being the Virtuoso, the fine musician.  It is what set him apart in a family of five boys and various number of sisters.  He regularly refers to Herr Beethoven and I found it strangely ironic that Val could idolize Beethoven without acknowledging Beethoven himself was a handicapped musician.

Ellen is a lonely widow who feels insubstantial because of her inability to provide an heir to her deceased husband. She dropped the title and does not socialize with the locals other than to sell her wares.  She’s a bit moody, a bit secretive, a bit sad.  Her affection for Val wasn’t just sexual in nature but arose out of a need for comfort and companionship.  I felt like we knew Val better; however, as much of the story seemed from his point of view.  Perhaps this was an intentional effort to make Ellen more mysterious.

The tone of the story is gentle; the physical relationship graphic and sensual; the unwinding langorous.  I found Ellen and Val both  engaging.   I enjoyed how the slowly the physical part of the relationship developed, no matter how inappropriate their encounters.  The prose is very nice.

This book would read so much better as a fantasy historical or perhaps even a country set contemporary.  If the setting wasn’t “historical”, then perhaps the obvious thumbing of authenticity wouldn’t really bother me.  Unfortunately, nearly every scene had me raising my eyebrows despite all the potential.  I wished that I could have accepted the invitation to lose myself in the text, but I simply could not do it.  C-

Best regards,

Jane

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

28 Comments

  1. Avery Flynn
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 14:26:13

    I don’t know, I love her voice so much that I still can’t wait to dive in.

    ReplyReply

  2. Joy
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 14:37:23

    I know, I know, but Burrowes actually gets me to suspend that disbelief just *enough*…

    ReplyReply

  3. Mandi
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 14:56:39

    This book is the first I’ve read of this author. I think she has such a different and unique voice.

    There were times – like as you said when one of his friends helps him bathe, or his other friend is helping him remodel the house that I thought it felt too casual for his station. Actually, it all was too casual..but it felt like it was right for the little town they lived in. I wonder how her other books come across.

    I wish he would have mourned the loss of playing the piano a little more. But this one was a nice read for me.

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  4. rachel
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 15:12:17

    I read The Heir and The Soldier and really enjoyed both, so I was surprised by how much I didn’t care for this one. Many of the things about Valentine that had come up in the previous two books were never mentioned (that I remember) in The Virtuoso. His pretending to be gay, attraction to the younger sister of his sister-in-law, and the fact that he occasionally lives in a brothel (because they have a piano)were all things that interested me initially in his character but none of those things came up in this one. I agree too about the overload of characters, even having read the other books in the series I found myself confused by all of the names of people I didn’t remember.

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  5. Ros
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 15:58:13

    While I’m all for heroes who are ready to shed their shirts at a moment’s notice, I can’t bring myself to read a book that doesn’t even match up to Julia Quinn’s low, low standards of historical accuracy. She has decimal currency in the Regency era. *head desk*

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  6. Dana
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 16:24:16

    I tried to read The Soldier by this author, but only got about 1/3 of the way through it due to the inaccuracies (both historical and other). I’m usually the most oblivious person ever when it comes to inaccuracies, especially historical ones, but with this book they tossed me out of the plot so many times that I eventually just gave up…

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  7. DM
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 17:06:49

    I liked The Heir–but I enjoy a good mistorical done right.

    For me that means a romp with carriages and balls and fluffy dresses and tight trousers. As long as the characters behave in the appropriate Ye Olde manner, I’ll go along for the ride. But when their interactions feel so patently modern, it spoils the fantasy. I couldn’t get past the first ten pages of The Soldier, and I think I’ll pass on spending my reading dollars on The Virtuoso. Too bad, because like others, I enjoyed Burrowes’ voice.

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  8. vita
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 17:11:03

    So Val doesn’t end up with the partially deaf sister…? That’s disappointing. I really liked the growing/potential dynamic of them as a couple. He helped her regain some of her hearing. She was a little younger and rather feisty.

    About having sex in inappropiate places: that reminded me of last night’s the Walking Dead, where a couple of young people have a hook up in a drug store which they are raiding for supplies. There they were naked and all I kept expecting were zombies to come eat them. I kept thinking “don’t have sex anywhere other than in a bunker!!!”

    That’s the only way to practice safe sex in an apocolypse.

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  9. Jane
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 17:19:07

    @rachel: What?? None of those things appeared in this book. Really. In fact, I think the only brothel reference was when he mentally recounted where his sexual encounters took place.

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  10. Jane
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 17:29:42

    @Avery Flynn: @Joy: @Mandi: I completely understand the appeal of this author. Her voice is lovely.

    I do wonder why this book is a historical though. It could have been a really wonderful small town contemporary. I think you could completely transport this story and change the Duke to a wealthy business owner and it would read exactly the same. In fact, I would enjoy it so much more because I wouldn’t always be asking what??

    She doesn’t use historical conventions to provide conflict. Poor widows left without money can believably be done in contemps. The youngest son of a wealthy man who owns piano factories wanting to find a refuse is also believable. His friends helping him “raise the roof” so to speak as well as any other number of personal chores necessitated by a wounded hand is also believable.

    Why set this between 1811 and 1820?

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  11. Avery Flynn
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:02:13

    @Jane: “Why set this between 1811 and 1820?”

    Because the dresses are so cool? Being a smartypants there of course, but I am not a reader that gets caught up in historical inaccuracies. I remember going to a used bookstore in Tallahassee, Fla., once searching for some Regency romance (when in stressful times there is nothing better) and the owner wrinkling her nose at my request and saying she hated those books because they are so inaccurate. Any girl who acted like the heroines in Regencies would have been beaten, locked in her room and/or tossed in a nunnery was her reasoning.

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  12. Ros
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:04:33

    @Avery Flynn: There are periods of history with MUCH better dresses than 1811 to 1820.

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  13. Ros
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:18:47

    The more I think about this, the more the big issue for me is class. Class is so ingrained in English society even now, but 200 years ago it affected everything. Literally, every conversation, every life choice, every item of clothing, everything. I can’t read books which make everyone middle class. I just can’t. I don’t believe them and even with the wonderful voice which someone like Burrowes clearly has, I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to get through the book. I don’t want to believe them, either. For me, class is one of the things which makes history most interesting because it represents all the social conventions which so powerfully control people’s choices. It’s hard to know what those conventions are in our lives but it’s much easier to see them at work in a different society, whether separated by time or geography or whatever. That’s what I’m looking for in a historical romance, a sense of why people – despite still being people with the same needs and desires we can all identify with – are constrained by their society to behave in certain ways. That’s such a rich source of conflict for a romance novel that I can’t see why an author would even want to do away with it.

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  14. rachel
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:44:15

    @Jane: Val pretends to be gay and outrageous (living in the brothel) to irritate his father and keep him from trying to make a match for him. I was really surprised it didn’t come up at all in The Virtuoso.

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  15. Merrian
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:47:05

    @Ros: Thank you for saying this so clearly. I haven’t read this book but then I am not likely too because I avoid a lot of historicals for these very reasons.

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  16. Mandi
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 18:47:54

    @rachel:

    I haven’t read previous books but wow – I would have liked to see that side of him. We didn’t see any of that.

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  17. Kaetrin
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 23:29:52

    Wasn’t being gay in the Regency a criminal offense? As intriguing as that sounds to me, it does seem that it would be more likely to be the other way round. (maybe that’s why it was dropped from this book? – although if that is the case, it does seem a bit odd that there are so many other anachronisms which were left).

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  18. Rosie
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 06:04:17

    Hold up! His friends helped him dress and undress and bathe? And it was la-dee-da no big deal? That. Is. Hilarious!
    I think this author would drive me bonkers if I read her books. There are plenty of other “good voices” out there that get things right — or at least in the ballpark of right! lol

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  19. Maili
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 07:27:48

    @Ros: Wonderfully put.

    @Kaetrin:

    Wasn’t being gay in the Regency a criminal offense?

    No. Buggery – for men and women – was a criminal offence.

    Section 11 didn’t take place until 1885. Section 11 was basically a legal ban on homosexual activities, e.g. the law can go after gay men when acts of buggery cannot be proven. This was repealed in 1967.

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  20. Lil
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 07:52:49

    Your problems with this book are exactly what drove me crazy about The Heir – I liked the writing and the characterizations, but the ahistorical attitudes and behavior kept knocking me out of the story.

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  21. amy
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 12:42:43

    I just finished this book, and I have to say that I give it a C also… The Historical Hijinx you cite are one reason, but I also found those same activities oddly out of place even in a contemporary. It felt a bit too much of “this is how guys *should* relate as told by a woman” as opposed to “this is how guys of any era actually do act”… The author does have a great voice, and I probably will read the next one just to give her one final try, but I do sincerely hope for a more realistic portrayal of the men in the story!

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  22. martha
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 16:22:20

    I hate that someone can make a decision based solely on someone else’s opinion not to buy an author’s books. Personally I find Ms. Burrowes’ writing so lyrical and the characters so intriguing and well drawn that I don’t much care about the accuracy of the period. I actually learned much about the period from her books that I don’t from others. Julia Quinn used to be my favorite historical author but I find the emotion and the family of Windhams more to my liking of late.

    I certainly wouldn’t shy away from a whole series of books over one review. All authors have their good books and better books.

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  23. SHZ
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 22:44:00

    @martha:

    Both this author and Julia Quinn are infamous for their terrible level of historical accuracy. Whatever you “learned about the time period” therefore is probably not actually true about the time period at all.

    Even if you enjoy an author’s writing, when it is completely historically wrong, you cannot learn history from it.

    I have a huge interest in history, and lived in Britain for years, and I find authors who destroy it insulting. This review IS a good enough reason for me not to buy this book.

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  24. Pat Miller
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 00:17:12

    If readers want authenticity in their reading, I suggest they buy non-fiction books. I am sure I’m not on my own when I say that I read this type of fiction because it entertains me, and puts a bit of romance back into my life. I’ve read all Grace Burrowes books so far and have not met her equal. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it is not kind to broadcast said opinion to all and sundry. Let the author’s readers make their own decision without criticism from others.

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  25. Kaetrin
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 19:29:41

    @Pat Miller: Um, isn’t the point of a review site for the reviewer’s opinion to be “broadcast to all and sundry”? And for commenters to share their opinions (whether they agree or not) on the review?

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  26. Pat Miller
    Nov 12, 2011 @ 13:45:04

    You are of course quite right Kaetrin. In my haste to defend Grace, whose books I love, I generalised. There are of course a number of authoritative sites available to inform the reader. I have just checked out Barnes & Noble, and found there three very favourable professional reviews of The Virtuoso.

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  27. Jane
    Nov 12, 2011 @ 15:02:59

    @Pat Miller I definitely see why Burrowes works for many readers and I’m glad that there are other sites that you find helpful.

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  28. nasanta
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 20:45:54

    @Dana:

    This was me with The Heir. I ran across one too many historical inaccuracies that I couldn’t continue without venting every page. I couldn’t see the characters or the plot, just those glaring “modernism with a historical window-dressing”. I DNF’ed it, feeling fortunate that I had only borrowed it from the library, not purchased it.

    ReplyReply

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