REVIEW: Secret Desires of A Gentleman by Laura Lee Guhrke
Dear Ms. Guhrke:
I enjoyed your last book, Wicked Ways of A Duke and was looking forward to Maria Martingale’s story. It is hard to resist these girl-bachelors; after all, who wouldn’t want to root for these young women who seek real independence and also find the gift of love along the way. However, despite the fact that I liked Maria quite a bit, and even had a certain affection for her upright, uptight hero, Phillip, I ultimately feel that Secret Desires of A Gentleman was not a very strong entry in the girl-bachelor series.
As a baker with dreams of opening her own upscale patisserie, Maria, at 29, seems a confirmed girl-bachelor, completely focused on her ambition and her passion for fine pastry. For twelve years she has nursed her desires, ever since she returned from Paris as a teenager, honing her craft with some of the best chefs in England after having learned from her father, chef for a nobleman who had two sons, Phillip and Lawrence, with whom she grew up. Lawrence was lighthearted where Phillip was stuffy, but the three played and spent many hours together together nonetheless, forming a strong bond among them.
Until, that is, Lawrence and Maria decide they are in love and want to elope to Gretna Green. Phillip, by then the Marquess of Kayne (his father died when he was still a child), paid the seventeen year old Maria a thousand pounds to leave and never see Lawrence again. A promise she keeps, until, that is, she leases the most charming storefront in Piccadilly, the perfect spot to establish her business, except for the fact that it is next door to Lawrence’s house. Where Phillip is currently staying while his own home is being renovated. So when Phillip and Maria accidentally meet, and he discovers her plans (and she the proximity to Lawrence), Phillip immediately assumes that Maria is trying to insinuate herself back into Lawrence’s life and ruin the engagement Phillip is trying to arrange for him. As owner of the leasing company – and the property itself – Phillip arranges to have Maria evicted, a plan that would have been successful if Maria did not have a strong mind for strategy herself (she and Phillip used to play chess together, after all). Enlisting the help of a delighted Lawrence, Maria secures her place in the shop and a position as personal patissier to the family for a large charity event, forcing Phillip to take drastic measures to protect what he perceives to be the interests of his family and his brother’s future.
Secret Desires of A Gentleman is not the story of Maria and Lawrence – no, that would be too tepid and predictable a match. The affable Lawrence may have been more open with his affection toward Maria – and his flattery – but it is the brooding Phillip who always carried deep feelings for the brash, bright Maria, feelings that he channels into astounding condescension. It is that age-old dilemma for that age-old hero-type: the straight-laced Victorian gentleman who cannot resist the charms of a woman who is socially beneath him. What to do, what to do. What he does, not surprisingly, is attempt to sublimate his desires by reminding himself what an “impertinent wench” Maria is, so that he can resist the “almost unbearable temptation to go to her.” But just like the “true North” to which he compares her several times, Maria continues to tempt Phillip, whose hunger is largely invisible to the strongly focused Maria.
So she is surprised when Phillip kisses her after eating her sweet petit-fours, surprised but deeply aroused and befuddled, for she has always harbored secret feelings for the stoic Phillip, as well, and “She had been kissed before, but not like this, never like this,” especially by a man who so persistently insults her. Phillip, of course, is not so easily won over to his passion, insisting that Maria is victimizing him, somehow:
“Whatever you do, it makes me insane.” He glared at her, his resentment palpable. “A few centuries ago, they’d have burned you as a witch.”
Thus the game continues, with Maria and Phillip resisting each other, struggling against their resistance, and failing miserably, growing closer emotionally and physically as the book goes on, and as Maria’s business and reputation grow. This creates a real challenge for Phillip: how can he reconcile his desires with his position as a gentleman? And how can he manage the excess of feelings he has for Maria without compromising her position further, making her even more ineligible a match for a man such as he?
I generally like stories about the proud man brought low by love, and there are a number of things about Secret Desires of A Gentleman I enjoyed, most of them involving Maria. I liked very much that when Phillip initially tries to evict her that she uses her smarts to frustrate his plans, and I appreciated the fact that it isn’t Lawrence who ultimately turns out to be Maria’s mate, which is a nice little diversion from the obvious. There are a number of scenes in which Maria’s intelligence shines, like when she confronts Phillip’s master chef in order to prove herself and gain the chauvinistic chef’s respect. Although Phillip has no understanding of this process, finding the confrontation between the two chefs disruptive, Maria knows what she’s doing and she plays her role perfectly. She is smart, and for sixteen out of the book’s seventeen chapters, I truly believed in her passion for pastry. She understands the art of it, the pleasure in baking and serving wonderful sweets, the complexity of flavors and textures, and the crucial chemistry of it. I enjoyed the scenes where Maria is in the kitchen, where she is expressing her artistry in an authentic way. She is professional and focused, and she made me believe that she was “one of the finest pastry chefs in London,” as she tells Phillip several times.
Phillip was less successful for me, in large part because he isn’t just condescending to Maria; he is downright mean on a number of occasions (reference the quote above where he tells her she would have been burned as a witch at one point in history). Further, that meanness is not offset by an equally passionate showing of the deep sensitivity that one expects a man such as Phillip to possess under the bluster. We have no doubt that he desires Maria, but he has a very hard time being kind to her or expressing any understanding of what motivates and animates her. Even when he saves her from a terrible rainstorm, he does it by grabbing her from behind and wrestling her into his coach in a way that makes Maria feel abducted rather than protected. In short, he felt more like a rough outline of the complex character I expected to discover in him.
Another thing I did like, however, was the late-Victorian setting and the attempts made to flesh out the environment. Even if the writing itself felt too contemporary, there were a number of details present that added a flavor of the time, from Maria’s mackintosh to her “polished brass cash register,” and Phillip’s Morris office chair and radiator. Many of these details serve more as decoration than true history, but they were welcome, nonetheless.
For me, the biggest weakness of Secret Desires of A Gentleman is in its central focus – namely, the relationship development between Maria and Phillip. They spar satisfactorily, but it is not until the middle of the book that they even kiss, and their relationship does not become fully sexual until the second to last chapter. Which wouldn’t be an enormous problem if that act was not so critical in magnifying the basic conflict between the two. Maria has worked for twelve years to achieve the dream of her own shop, and Phillip cannot understand why she would want to bake when she could be a marchioness. Despite the fact that this issue is so fundamental to their relationship, they have only one chapter to sort it all out, which sends the pacing of the novel, already a bit unsteady, right into overdrive, flattening out and contradicting much of the logic that propelled the previous sixteen chapters. Maria goes from steadfast career woman to compliant coquette within a page or two, and Phillip blooms from stuffy prude to passionate exhibitionist within the same time frame. Maria’s character, in particular, is sacrificed in a way that makes a mockery of the passion and commitment she shows to her profession for most of the novel, and it frankly made little sense within the context of her character development. It wasn’t just that her independence felt false; it felt betrayed within the context of the book itself.
Part of the problem, I think, is that much of the novel, especially the first chapters, are taken up with paragraphs upon paragraphs of backstory, flashbacks to Maria, Lawrence, and Phillip’s childhoods, information that is important but very page consuming, as well as narratively flat. Like the last book, this one contains myriad clichés, but this time they annoyed me rather than simply making me wonder about their historical accuracy, largely because there was so much unevenness in the telling – showing ratio, as well as in the general eloquence of the prose. At one point, for example, Maria yells the same thing at Phillip within one conversation: “I am one of the finest pastry chefs in London, I’ll have you know!” The second time she replaces London with “England,” but otherwise the phrase is identical. The artificiality of the world creation is evident in statements like the following: “‘Methinks she doth protest too much,’ paraphrased Daisy, laughing.” And then there is the kind of triteness that undermines the vibrancy of the hero and heroine, which emerges in those passages relating to their sexual desire:
She’d grown up in the country, she’d gone to a French boarding school, she’d been cornered by a lecherous footman a time or two. She knew- from visits to the farm as a child, from whispered consultations with other girls after trips to the museums, from learning to put up her knee at the appropriate moment-what that hardness in a man’s body meant. She also knew what it could lead to.
Never had he touched a respectable woman in such intimate ways. Always, he had conducted his affairs in the proper way, with paid mistresses and the occasional courtesan.
If I could have one request granted in the genre, it would be to be rid of these comparisons to farm animals mating that Romance virgins predictably resort to as they struggle with the physical realities of sex for the first time (and while I could accept Maria as a virgin at 29, I had a difficult time accepting this level of ignorance), as well as the requisite protestations of “honor” from the heroes via commercially secured sex. In this book they functioned to undermine the authenticity of the emotion that was already developing within a compressed time frame, despite the insistence that Phillip and Maria had been growing their love since childhood. The pacing of the story and the development of the adult relationship just was not fully convincing, especially in the final chapter.
Had that last chapter been at least three, and had the dual about-face been less stark (especially in Maria’s case), I think that some of the other issues in the novel would not have been so significant. But my frustration with that last chapter simply exacerbated the other problems I had, making Secret Desires of A Gentleman barely a C read for me.