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REVIEW: Heartless by Mary Balogh

Dear Ms. Balogh,

I’ve been in a reading slump lately and decided to try Heartless, your out of print historical romance from 1995, which has been sitting in my TBR pile for ages, in the hope that it would absorb me. Your older, angstier books are generally reliable in that even if when they are flawed, they make it easy for me to turn the pages.

HeartlessSuch was the case with Heartless. It is the Georgian-era story of Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, and Anna Marlowe, the woman he marries after having only known her for a week. Ten years before, Luke had a falling out with his family after a duel with his older brother, and even the death of that brother eight years later did not bring him to England immediately.

But two years after George’s death, Luke is back from his exile in France, and his uncle Theo persuades him to take a bride in order to settle a dispute between his mother and his sister-in-law, Henrietta, whom Luke once loved. The two duchesses both want to rule Bowen Abbey, Lucas’s estate, and Theo believes that the addition of a third duchess to the family will resolve their quarrel.

Theo introduces Luke to Anna, the goddaughter of Theo’s lover and friend. Despite having cultivated ennui, indifference and heartlessness along with French mannerisms while abroad, Luke is dazzled by Anna, as she is by him. But Anna has an enemy, one who blackmails her, sends her threatening letters, and stalks her. One who has gone to America, but promised to return and to take her away with him.

Anna feels she cannot marry anyone, but she is so drawn to Luke and so happy in his presence that, after trying to put him off by confessing to having no money as well as to having a sister who is deaf-mute to support, she finds herself replying to his marriage proposal in the affirmative.

Luke too is attracted to Anna, perhaps even beginning to fall for her. He gives her an opportunity to tell him if she has more secrets, but she does not take it. And so Luke and Anna are married, and only Luke notices the stranger lurking outside the church in which they marry.

The morning after their wedding night, Luke calls Anna into his study and dashes her hopes that he did not notice the absence of her hymen. He offers her a chance to explain, but though tears rise to her eyes, she remains silent even when he asked her if she loves the man to whom she gave her virginity.

Luke takes that for a yes, but offers her a marriage in which duty and pleasure will supersede love. They will conceive his heir and other children, since they like each other well enough. As long as her past remains in the past, he will overlook her secrecy. He is not capable of love in any case.

There are tensions between Luke and other family members as well. Luke’s brother Ashley wants to keep an expensive mistress and gamble beyond his allowance. When Luke confronts his brother, Ashley accuses Luke of heartlessness. It is a familiar accusation, one that has been leveled at Luke many times in the past.

Luke’s sister Doris, the one member of the family who was most sorry to see him leave and effusive on his return, has fallen in love with an ineligible man – an artist who was hired to paint her portrait. It is during a violent confrontation between Luke and Doris’s suitor at Ranelagh Gardens that Anna is left alone and her stalker, Sir Lovatt Blaydon, approaches her.

Blaydon tells Anna that she is only on loan to Luke, and implies that he will eventually insist on her desertion of her husband. A tense and frightened Anna asks Luke to take her home, and then seduces him in the carriage. She tells him what she has begun to suspect—that she is pregnant. And she asks him to take her to his country estate, Bowden Abbey.

There, Luke and Anna’s marriage faces another threat, this time from the beautiful Henrietta whom Luke has never forgotten. Henrietta befriends Anna and later encounters Luke while he is out riding, seemingly by accident but in reality purposefully. More such meetings occur, leaving Luke both discomfited and, without regard to his belief that he is heartless, afraid that Henrietta might still have power over him. Yet Henrietta’s past is both traumatic and tragic, so Luke doesn’t confront her.

Despite the obstacles in the path of their happiness, Luke and Anna enjoy each other’s company and are good to one another. If Anna wants Luke to be capable of love, she does not complain to him. If part of Luke wishes he could trust his heart to Anna completely, he tells himself the current situation is for the best. Love hurts, and Luke has better cause to know that than most.

What he does not know is that Anna’s past will not remain in the past, and that his wife and the child she carries are both in danger.

I had heard a lot of good things about Heartless prior to reading it—it is a favorite of some of my friends. And it started out well. I liked Anna a great deal—she was sunny-natured and at ease with most people, as well as kind. Despite her caving to some of her blackmailer’s demands, I did not see her as weak. The villain was twisted enough that I understood she had good reasons to feel afraid of him.

Luke was interesting and a bit unusual, with an initial excess of powder and makeup that was attributed to his years with the French. He also had long hair beneath his wig and even had a fan he was in the habit of snapping closed. I might have enjoyed these aspects of his character more if the text—through Anna’s thoughts and words–had not kept insisting that they didn’t make him any less manly. I never bought his heartlessness but I don’t think I was really intended to.

The book was indeed absorbing, as I had hoped. It was easy to keep reading, something I don’t take for granted these days.

I disliked the wedding night discovery plot point partly because not every woman bleeds during her first sexual experience and partly because I’m not a fan of the trope in which the conflict hinges on the absence of the heroine’s virginity.

Nonetheless, I felt that Luke’s discovery of Anna’s non-virginal state could have easily gone pear shaped in a much bigger way, and didn’t. Luke didn’t obsess about Anna’s previous lover or lovers. He didn’t consider his wife a slut. He didn’t suspect her of cheating on him, or suspect that their child had been sired by another man.

I was grateful for all that, and it was a lot of why I liked Luke. I also liked the way his conflict with Ashley was resolved (The resolution of the conflict with Doris felt like it needed more page time than it got). A discovery that resulted from Luke and Ashley’s rapprochement brought about a catharsis to Luke’s feelings about his dead brother George, and that was quite moving.

But there were problems I had with this novel. I’m not a stickler for historical accuracy by any stretch, but I caught an error. Anna’s father could not have been in danger of going to debtors’ prison (due to his title of earl).

A secondary character, the Marquise d’Etienne, a lover of Luke’s who had followed him from England to France, appeared briefly early on in the book. Her sultry and temperamental character struck me as stereotypical in the way French women are frequently portrayed in historical romance.

Anna’s sister, the deaf-mute Emily, was also a problematic and stereotypical character. She was depicted as childlike, sad over her disability even after having lived with it all her life, and able to communicate only with those people with whom she shared a special connection.

It seemed only some of Luke’s family members understood that Emily was capable of lip reading, and I didn’t understand why Anna had not told all of Luke’s family that Emily was able to understand speech in this way, unless it was intended as a plot contrivance.

As the novel continued on and Anna did not share her secret with Luke despite persistent attempts on his part to give her opportunities to do so, signs of empathy and affection on his part and even his assurance that he would protect her, I grew exasperated. Not so much with Anna, who was too likable a character but with the plot that required her not to share her secret with Luke.

Another aspect of the story that disappointed me involves a spoiler.

[spoiler]I was looking forward to seeing Luke’s walls crumble, but when it happened, it was not due to any breakthrough in his marriage or mending of the fences with his family members. Instead it was the birth of his child which thawed him. Which is nice enough and believable too, but not that satisfying from a narrative perspective, since I would have preferred to see some of the effort put forth in  Luke and Anna’s marriage or even in Luke’s relationship with his siblings lead to this change in Luke’s attitude. [/spoiler]

I confess too that the villain’s motivation seemed too convoluted to me, and one of the events in his and Anna’s past not only twisted, but hard to buy.

Heartless isn’t the weakest Balogh I’ve read, but it also isn’t among the strongest. For me this was a middling book, and I give it a C.

Sincerely

Janine

AmazonBN

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

21 Comments

  1. Donna Thorland
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 12:36:54

    I went on a Balogh spree many years ago and devoured her backlist but I think I might have missed this one. I’m surprised it hasn’t been republished digitally yet.

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  2. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 12:39:47

    Actually, in the Georgian era, a peer could not be sent to debtor’s prison. It was the only significant privilege they had. It had to be a peer, ie someone entitled to sit in the House of Lords.
    http://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/a-peers-privilege/
    That’s the only reference I can find online, but I do have books with it in.
    but on the whole I agreed with your assessment. I love men who are manly enough to wear lace and pink. But Balogh did seem a bit concerned that her readers wouldn’t get it. And there is a scene near the end that still makes me shudder.

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  3. Jennie
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 12:55:41

    I read this ages ago, so I don’t remember it that well, but what I do remember is being frustrated by the ongoing secret that Anna insists on keeping from Luke. I thought the villain was creepy but not entirely believable.

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  4. Kate Pearce
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 14:47:21

    I remember being frustrated at the end because I wanted her just to ‘tell him’ but I still count this among my favorite Balogh’s simply because of the interesting and enigmatic hero. :)

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  5. Little Red
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 16:15:43

    Sounds promising despite its flaws.

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  6. Susan
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 17:47:34

    Wow, I didn’t realize how much of Balogh’s backlist was OOP and unavailable as ebooks.

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  7. Keishon
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 17:56:45

    I am heartbroken by this review. I think I started reading Balogh with this book. One nice reader made a list for me on AOL and put three of her books on a list along with Laura Kinsale. I enjoyed Heartless like I enjoyed a lot of early romances from the 80′s and 90′s that today probably wouldn’t survive the scrutiny. As we read we grow so I’m not sure how I would feel about this book today so I understand why you gave it a C. I just know that at the time that I read it, it was an angst-ridden page turner and I loved it. I’m just at this point sad to see that it didn’t hold up well. What’s interesting for me though is that I haven’t successfully read or enjoyed any of her newest titles. I don’t know what that means so I’ll leave it right there.

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  8. Sunita
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 17:58:03

    I remember really liking this book when I finally got around to reading it, although the deaf sister portrayal was extremely problematic. But I’m not sure how it would hold up on a reread. I’ve found that Balogh will make trivial historical errors (e.g. forms of address), and then she’ll get the more complex historical story just right. Her depiction of the Rebecca Riots is amazingly good (in either Truly or Longing, I always forget which is which).

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  9. Ducky
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 18:15:59

    I liked this one with some reservations. I have always enjoyed reading about this time period and the combination of the feminine dress of the aristocratic males, the make-up coupled with their quite deadly skill with a sword is fascinating to me. I always have to suspend disbelief over any plot point that hinges on that pesky hymen. I too lost patience with the heroine for keeping her secret for far too long. The villain was very creepy to me. And what he did to the heroine was beyond the pale.

    The deaf sister I think has her own book. I have never read it though.

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  10. Mary Beth
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 19:53:24

    @ Ducky – Silent Melody is the sequel to Heartless. And yes, it is the story of Anna’s sister Emmy. I am hopeless when it comes to Mary Balogh – there simply is not a book that she can write that I do not love. I am not inclined towards the viewpoint that a book that I loved a few years ago will most likely become cliched if I read it now. Every book that I read in the past that I loved, or touched me in some way, still remains, for me, a wonderful book.

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  11. Kaetrin
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 20:05:42

    *sticks fingers in ears and sings LA LA LA*

    This is my favourite Balogh and possibly my favourite book – it is certainly one I would save from a fire if my house was burning. I re-read some or all of it regularly. I love it. I know it has flaws but I don’t care. I just love it. I adore Luke. I never felt like I was being told he was manly. I perceived him as manly. I love the powder and the red heels and how he was a fashionista and the fan and I love the way Luke and Anna would laugh over it. He was always manly to me – it never occurred to me to think him otherwise.

    I know many people have a problem with the way Emily was portrayed but I liked Silent Melody too (*ducks*). I am much more aware now than I used to be of issues with the way disability in fiction is portrayed but my love for both books (and most especially Heartless) was born and rooted deep well before then. So, while I can see those things now, I still love the books.

    Luke is one of my favourite heroes and this book has my favourite sex scene in it and I just love it. And that scene where Luke tells his mother off and rings the church bells? Adore.

    I understand that it is planned for digital release “soon” but I don’t know what “soon” actually means. I paid an outrageous amount for my paper copy on eBay and I don’t regret a cent.

    So I will keep my fingers firmly in my ears, ignore any criticism however accurate and rational and, no matter what anyone else thinks and however much I respect their opinions, I will still love and adore this book :D

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  12. Janine
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 20:55:40

    @Donna Thorland: I think I got my copy from paperbackswap years ago.

    @Lynne Connolly: I knew that actually, and the error was in using the wrong word. I meant “due to his title of earl” but a brain fart made me type “despite” instead! I actually checked with Sunita on that to be sure I was correct, so I’m annoyed at myself for misstating it after all that.

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  13. Janine
    Sep 11, 2013 @ 21:17:51

    @Jennie & @Kate Pearce: I had the same reaction. Lucas gave Anna multiple chances to tell him what was going on and treated her kindly, so I couldn’t understand why she never overcame her reluctance to tell him. She was in dire straits by the time he figured it out.

    @Little Red: I’ve heard so many great things about this book over the years that my expectations were pretty high. It ended up being a bit of a letdown.

    @Susan: Yeah, her backlist is a mile long. There are still many that I haven’t gotten to.

    @Keishon: So sorry I broke your heart! I actually prefer her older titles to the newer ones too. And there were things I liked about this one (such as that Lucas turned out to be a nice guy when all was said and done), but I think I generally prefer Balogh’s shorter trads from the same timeframe.

    @Sunita: I liked Longing — not sure if it’s the one you’re thinking of but it was the one with the mining conditions protests. The interesting thing about Balogh is that when she’s at the top of her game, she can make me buy some pretty far fetched premises — like the one in The Temporary Wife for example.

    @Ducky: Yes, agreed, the villain really was creepy. I was impressed to see such a truly disturbing villain in one of Balogh’s novels. I was a little disappointed though that some of what the villain told Anna late in the book (trying to avoid spoilers) turned out to be a lie. It made him less believable to me but I can understand why Balogh made that choice — it was better that way for Anna and Lucas.

    @Mary Beth: I probably would have enjoyed this one more had I read it around the time it was published. I’m leery of reading Silent Melody, based on the stereotypical way Emily was portrayed.

    @Kaetrin: Fair enough. Carry on.

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  14. Sunita
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 08:56:02

    @Janine: I just looked them up. As you say, Longing is the book about mining conditions and the romance between a miner’s daughter and the mine owner. Truly has some of the same themes but specifically fictionalizes the Rebecca Riots of the 1830s/1840s. I like both of them very much; I reread Truly a year or two ago to see how Balogh handled those specific events in her fictional depiction, and I was really impressed.

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  15. Joanna Chambers
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 13:01:58

    I remember wanting to read this for ages because so many readers loved it and not being able to get hold of a copy because the second hand copies were so costly on Amazon – then i finally managed to get one and I was a bit… Disappointed. However, I adored Silent Melody. In fact, I think my love of SM, which I read first, was part of why Heartless didn’t meet my expectations.

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  16. Janet W
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 14:12:14

    Joanna, I loved Silent Melody too–but Heartless didn’t disappoint me. One of the things I liked so much (and I so rarely get) in SM, was the chance to see the evolving relationship between Anna and Luke. They even *so rare in rom* argued quite vehemently about how to deal with a terrifying situation. I liked the whole extended family, especially the older couple that decided to marry. Reminded me of Georgette Heyer’s Powder and Patch.

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  17. Janine
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 15:37:04

    @Joanna Chambers: Maybe I should read Silent Melody, but the stereotyping of Emily and the way her disability was treated in the storyline of Heartless have made me nervous about Silent Melody.

    @Janet W: The older couple (Luke’s uncle and Anna’s godmother) were lovely.

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  18. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 16:02:10

    I enjoyed “Silent Melody,” but from what I can recall, the childlike-ness of Emily is a bit exaggerated. It’s so dangerous to regard a disability as something wrong, something that needs curing, and not look at how whatever it is makes a person what he or she is, if you see what I mean. While Balogh doesn’t entirely escape that trap, when she finds someone who understands her, much of it is dissipated. However in this period, people who were “different” were treated very differently, and it’s hard not to do the subject justice without introducing anachronisms.

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  19. Kaetrin
    Sep 12, 2013 @ 21:16:45

    @Joanna Chambers: I read Silent Melody after Heartless – I had to track that book down too. I adored the relationship with Ashley and Emily in Heartless so I wanted to see what happened with them.

    I felt (with the caveat that – unfortunately- I’m not always as sensitive to certain things as I ought to be) that the way Emily’s disability was handled in Silent Melody fit the times. I have read reviews which disliked the way Luke taught Emily to read but I liked it. And I liked the arguments that Luke and Anna had – Luke wanted Emily to be more independent and get out more in the world and Anna wanted to wrap Emily in cotton wool. It felt authentic to me.

    @Lynne Connolly: Definitely agree with your comment re authenticity/anachronism.

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  20. Maili
    Sep 21, 2013 @ 03:28:29

    @Kaetrin:

    “I felt (with the caveat that – unfortunately- I’m not always as sensitive to certain things as I ought to be) that the way Emily’s disability was handled in Silent Melody fit the times.”

    Well, that’s the thing. To some deaf readers, it doesn’t. Bearing in mind that most know their history better than most social historians and researchers including myself do, due to strong oral traditions within the Deaf community. Furthermore, the British Deaf community in 1995 or 1996 had voted Silent Melody as “Romantic Historical Novel with the Worst Portrayal of a Deaf Character” and “Romantic Historical Novel with the Worst Portrayal of Deaf History” in the British Deaf News magazine. :(

    In my opinion, Balogh’s portrayal of Emily’s deafness is typical of Balogh. Or rather, her perspective of disability as a whole (which isn’t hard to figure out as she’s – like Catherine Anderson – weirdly addicted to portraying disabilities in her works).

    All that said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving Silent Melody. Only as long as one doesn’t deem Balogh’s portrayal as realistic, authentic or accurate because it isn’t. It’s better and easier to view it as part of Balogh’s fictional universe.

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  21. Kaetrin
    Sep 21, 2013 @ 22:53:33

    @Maili: You would certainly know better than I about this stuff Maili. I did like Silent Melody when I read it some years ago but I freely admit I am no expert on the matter.

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