Nov 13 2008
Dear Ms. MacNish:
Veiled Passions is the first book of yours I’ve read, and perhaps because of that, this is a very difficult review for me to write. I wanted so much to like this book, because it has a number of elements I look for in Romance: settings other than Regency England (this book is set in 1777 Venice and England), a seemingly hefty word count, a heroine who actually comes from a loving, intact family. But for a number of reasons, some of which I still haven’t identified, I just did not connect emotionally to Veiled Passions or find myself engaged in the main couple’s rocky journey to love.
On the surface, Kieran Mullen has just about everything going for her: beauty, a close, loving family, a wealthy, honorable, and protective brother who also happens to be a duke, and bright marriage prospects. But she bears the scars of a three-year-old trauma that halted her emotional development and turned her into a veritable recluse. Her family is baffled and concerned, tolerating her eccentricities and allowing her freedom from meeting societal expectations. And when, at a party in Venice, she faces a specter of that horrific night, Kieran wishes for a more permanent freedom, which is denied her by a handsome Italian stranger who saves her life and recognizes a kindred spirit of sorts in Kieran, a woman who, like himself, has used up all her optimistic expectations and now lives in a kind of emotionally vacant limbo.
Like Kieran, Matteo de Gama is emotionally paralyzed, although his affliction has developed over a lifetime of emotional abandonment by numerous people who should have loved him. Matteo is an artist and a musician, although he tends to see himself more as a gambler and a libertine. When he rescues Kieran from the canals, where she falls in the midst of a struggle with a mysterious man, Matteo’s life becomes intertwined with hers. Although he knows nothing of her secret, he discerns that she is in need of justice, and he offers her the possibility of exacting retribution on someone who wronged her. Intrigued and unsettled, Kieran refuses his assistance, but, along with her grateful brother, Rogan, is still moved to help Matteo when he later faces false charges of treason delivered by the husband of a previous lover. And when he is exiled from Venice, Matteo takes Rogan up on an offer to accompany his family to England, where he takes charge of renovating an estate owned by Rogan and his nervously pregnant wife, Emeline.
Once the journey to England begins, Matteo and Kieran find themselves mutually intrigued and attracted. Kieran decides she wants Matteo’s help in crafting her revenge, and Matteo wants to solve the mystery of the woman he calls cuore solitario. “She was an intrigue and art and altogether bittersweet,” to Matteo, who is very familiar with the mixed blessings of an artistic sensibility and a beautiful face. And despite Rogan’s persuasive insistence that Matteo not pursue his sister, the attraction between them grows, their mutual loneliness and need to be loved stronger than any family admonition.
Thinking for days about Veiled Passions, I’m still not certain why this book didn’t click for me. In part I think it was the language, which had an overwrought quality that undercut rather than enhanced the emotional drama for me. For example, Rogan doesn’t simply get angry; he gives “a wild Irish display of barely controlled violence.” Matteo’s eyes aren’t merely brown; they “looked sorrowful, sincere, and deep.” Matteo’s interfering former mistress doesn’t just anger Kieran with a look; her eyes were “two emerald green orbs that pierced her soul.” Kieran’s “lips parted and trembled like dewy pink silk” and Matteo’s kiss “caused a million little smokeless fires to burn in her veins.” When I read that last description, I spent way too much time trying to figure out why the fires had to be smokeless.
Then there are instances of rhetorical awkwardness, cliché, or anachronism, as when Rogan gives Kieran “a bear hug” or Kieran finds herself “killing time” with her “secret stash of brandy.” Kieran’s English suitor Samuel Ellsworth insists that he does not need to rush marriage, already having “an heir and a spare” from his first wife, but he gets in trouble later for trying to “consul” Kieran. Throughout the novel I found myself underlining numerous instances of language that irked me, which signaled my emotional disengagement from the story.
And as for the story, it honestly felt to me like little actually happened during the course of this long novel. There is a flurry of activity at the beginning of the novel when Matteo rescues Kieran and they all end up traveling to England together. Matteo’s troublesome ex-mistress makes trouble for the prospective couple. There is the story of Kieran’s trauma, which reveals itself slowly and with numerous scenes that hint of its nature and participants. There is the secondary plot of Kieran’s plan for revenge, and then there is Emeline’s pregnancy, which concerns everyone because she has a history of miscarriage. And there are a number of scenes in which Kieran and Matteo spar with each other over the price Kieran should pay for Matteo’s help, as well as the mutual taunting the two engage in as they try to negotiate their attraction without sacrificing their pride. So I know intellectually that things were happening, but I found myself bored for most of the book. After the 200 page mark I started making margin notes like “enough already” and “get on with it,” as I yearned with all the passion I didn’t feel reading that Kieran and Matteo’s relationship would move forward. The dance they continued to do was understandable given their extreme prickliness as characters, but it frustrated me to no end as a reader, because they seemed to repeat the same exchange over and over, in slightly different form – suggest attraction but don’t commit yourself, say too much and then deny your feelings, advance too far and then retreat for weeks at a time, leave the other certain you feel nothing, rinse yourself of frustration and guilt and then repeat. And because of this repetition, the secondary revenge plot sometimes seemed more like a means to keep the sexual and emotional tension high rather than a necessary element of the novel.
As I said earlier, Veiled Passions had many qualities I appreciate in historical Romance. Kieran, for example, is not a mousy little debutante. No, she is a young woman who possesses quite a bit of pride and vanity, and whose reaction to the emotional trauma she suffered reflects her youthful self-centeredness. She is intelligent and strong-willed and self-aware enough to know she is a frustration to her family but unable to exorcise her shame and humiliation. And the nature of her trauma is interesting, as well, not totally what I expected, and not the norm in Romance. While I am starting to tire of traumatized heroines, Kieran’s victimization but a bit different in its nature and in the toll it took on her, so I was not as turned off as I expected to be when I started reading the book and anticipated a different revelation from her. I also appreciated that she had a loving family, and even though I felt her African guard and friend was a bit stereotyped at times, I liked that she could sustain healthy non-romantic relationships and trust those she knew were loyal to her.
In terms of Matteo, he remained more of an enigma to me, a man who has many artistic talents – he is practically inseparable from the cello he plays so lyrically – who is educated beyond his birth and sensitive beyond his capacity to trust others, but who never became real to me in the way I needed him to be. Part of the problem, I think, is that he keeps going on about how unworthy of love he is, when it is so blindingly clear that he is more emotionally generous than Kieran and readier to put himself in a vulnerable place by helping her. So there was not as much tension in his character as his alleged inner conflict would suggest. He spends a lot of time ruminating about Kieran, wondering that “[s]he was a painting in motion,” like “a princess whose feet have never trod upon anything but rose petals,” and generally struggling with his attraction to her. But I never felt the dimension that Matteo was supposed to possess, and I never felt the passion between him and Kieran despite all the descriptive attention paid to their mental lusting. It was as if the shields they each placed toward each other reflected their remoteness to me, as well, because I did not really feel them growing closer and more open emotionally as the novel progressed. So by the time they physically consummated their relationship it struck me as abrupt and slightly disappointing in its brevity and circumstance. By the time the pride receded and real emotions flowed, I had thoroughly disengaged, so it felt like too little too late, and despite the number of pages that had passed, too rapid.
I suspect there are many readers who will disagree with me about Veiled Passions, because I sense my response was primarily about chemistry as opposed to unforgivable issues of craftsmanship. Despite the problems I found with some of the prose, the writing wasn’t egregious, and neither the characters nor the plot seemed haphazardly constructed. And although my experience of Veiled Passions was below average, I think my grade should register as a straight C.