REVIEW: Written on Your Skin by Meredith Duran
Dear Ms. Duran,
Since I’ve acquired my lovely Sony PRS-505, I’ve used the handy-dandy “bookmark” button to mark notable pages in a book that I may want to refer back to when I write a review. Depending on the book, the bookmarks may be noting something that worked for me or something that didn’t. When reading your latest book, Written on Your Skin, I hit the bookmark button so many times I was afraid I was going to wear it out. All 32 bookmarks (and it easily could’ve been 132 if I hadn’t restrained myself a bit) noted bits of prose or characterization that I just loved. So it’s no surprise that Written on Your Skin is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long while.
The book opens in Hong Kong in 1880. Phin Monroe and Mina Masters have been carrying on a flirtation for several weeks when they encounter each other at a party. Phin thinks that Mina is an empty-headed flirt and Mina thinks Phin is an American businessman. They’re both wrong. Things get interesting when Phin collapses, the victim of poisoned brandy. Each quickly realizes that the other has hidden depths, but there is no time to explore their new understanding of each other – Phin has to get away before Mina’s brutal stepfather comes for him. Mina saves Phin’s life, but not without great cost to her own.
Four years later, Mina is in London, more or less under house arrest. Her beloved mother has gone missing, and Mina is under the thumb of Ridland, a rather amoral character who happens to be Phin’s former spymaster. Mina decides to call in the favor that Phin owes her.
Phin has finally gotten himself out from under Ridland’s hated control, and he isn’t eager to fall back into it. He’s now Phineas Granville, Earl of Ashmore. He has the power to ignore Ridland’s dictates, and in fact is using that power to try to destroy the man who blackmailed him for years, forcing him to kill for crown and country. The last thing Phin wants is to be dragged back into Ridland’s web of intrigue. But the fact that Mina once saved his life weighs on his conscience, and the reluctant attraction he felt for her in Hong Kong still lingers in his mind.
There is nothing extraordinary about the plot of Written on Your Skin – it’s pretty standard historical romance fare. It is well-executed and almost perfectly balanced. I had some brief concerns about it dragging during a section where Mina us under Phin’s control and Phin suspects her of being in league with Ridland – hero/heroine power struggles are a delicate area for me and suspicious heroes are such a staple of mediocre romance that I was hoping this aspect of the story would be resolved quickly. It was. The rest of the book was largely a road romance, as Mina and Phin try to track down and save Mina’s mother. I don’t think of myself as having a particular affinity for road romances, but on reflection I think I do. There are so many possibilities that arise from having the hero and heroine uprooted from their everyday surroundings, and you utilize that aspect of the story very well.
What really worked for me in Written on Your Skin is the beautiful prose and especially the extraordinary characterization. Prose and characterization are inextricably linked in my mind – I suppose you can have fine prose and still have bland characterization, but I think it’s pretty impossible to have exceptional characterization without superior prose. In WOYS you have both, and that is what lifts it from the status of a good book to a great one.
Phin and Mina are remarkable characters. Phin was born to the aristocracy but always existed as a bit of an outsider, due to his Irish heritage and his wastrel father. He found a mentor at an early age who welcomed Phin into his family and taught him cartography. But even this positive development ended up having a dark side: it was the mentor and Phin’s mapmaking skill that caused Ridland to take an interest in him.
Phin has tried to settle into the life of an Earl and forget his past. But he is essentially consumed with self-loathing about the things he did during his career as a spy. He feels like a murderer and suffers from panic attacks. He reminded me a bit of Samuel from Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, not only in his feelings of shame and inadequacy but in his nascent attempts to court the daughter of his recently deceased mentor, a move he seems to feel would help cleanse him of his sins (as well as perhaps bring him closer to being the son of a man he regarded as a father). Phin’s anguish and guilt are real and devastatingly rendered.
If Phin is a wonderfully drawn character, Mina is even more so. She may have vaulted onto my list of favorite romance heroines of all time.
Mina is an American, daughter of a long-dead American father and an English mother who has tried, mostly without success, to instill in her only child strict English notions of propriety. Mina’s childhood was traumatic due to her mother’s weak character and marriage to Mr. Collins, an Irish-American businessman of shadowy ties and brutal tendencies, a marriage that forces Mina to assume the role of protector and comforter at a young age:
But as she drew a breath to start the routine-‘reassurances (he did not mean it), denials (he will not leave you), promises (he will never leave you), for God’s sake all the manufactured optimism, the lies-‘she could not muster much feeling beyond exhaustion. You are not meant to cry in my arms, she thought. You are my mother. I am meant to cry in yours.
Mina and her mother were able to escape Collins back in Hong Kong four years before, but not without acquiring scars, both physical and emotional. She has since flourished as a businesswoman in New York, formulating and selling hair tonics and enjoying her independence. A trip to England, in part to procure lavender for her tonics, turns into a nightmare for Mina when Collins escapes from prison and Mina’s mother disappears.
What did I love about Mina? Where to start? She is a beautiful woman who is not shy about using her beauty to achieve her goals. She’s managed to turn the tables on the condescending men she encounters in business and society by playing the role of the brainless and helpless beauty who is unthreatening and in need of their aid. She had previously successfully played this role with Phin, and though the mask slipped a bit at the end, when they are reunited he is still not sure about Mina’s true nature. In fact, the first time they encounter each other in London, she rather amusingly throws herself into his arms and begs his aid with the air of one who cannot imagine that a man would not help her, a ruse that might have worked had Phin been less suspicious due to Ridland’s involvement.
Mina has every bit as much emotional baggage as Phin does, though ultimately I think she is stronger emotionally and better able to carry it. The main impediment to love for her is trust – she has watched her mother subvert her own character to a man’s will, and she vows that she will never do the same. Mina’s mother is on stage for relatively brief portions of the book, but I found myself resenting her for the damage she had done to her daughter. I was that attached to Mina, whose character is aptly described here, in her own thoughts:
She lifted her chin as she walked, the better to display the line of her neck, which a number of gentlemen had assured her put them in mind of a swan’s. Surely it would prove harder on the conscience to hurt a swan than a hedgehog, although she could use a few sharp quills right now, and the helpful capacity to curl into a bristling ball.
Mina is both a beautiful swan and an impenetrable and prickly hedgehog; she’s also at times a roaring tigress, as well as perhaps a few other denizens of the animal kingdom. She’s not a perfect romance heroine, at least not in the traditional sense: she’s not beloved by servants and kind to small children. She’s also not a new-school kickass heroine, operating at all times without fear or error. She’s beautiful and smart and tough, and she uses all of these attributes to get through life.
This book is tangentially related to your June release, Bound by Your Touch, and it’s interesting to read Phin’s thoughts on that book’s hero, his friend Viscount Sanburne:
It would be a simple thing to put his curiosity to rest. I stole things. I killed people. And I drew a few maps. But it had occurred to Phin that the viscount was too bored to receive these tidings with the proper revulsion. He might see them as novel options for keeping himself occupied.
So often the heroes of related historical romances are portrayed as blood brothers, almost platonic soulmates. It was actually refreshing to read, from Phin’s perspective, that he finds Sanburne’s laconic jokester persona wearing at times.
Being that Phin is a wonderful character and Mina is a wonderful character, it makes sense that I found myself very emotionally invested in their romance. Their relationship, is, in the end, wildly romantic. Both have fears to overcome; neither is entirely reasonable at times (I found myself siding with Mina more often than not, perhaps because her independence makes her a sympathetically though not unrealistically modern heroine). Written on Your Skin is my favorite type of romance, one in which the obstacles to lasting love are relatively equal on each side, and the hero and heroine thus have to take an equal number of steps to come together.
Okay, I find that I still have about 30 bookmarks I haven’t gone through yet, but I don’t want to spoil the book for readers. Rather I want to urge them to run, not walk to their nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Written on Your Skin. My grade (one I’ve managed to talk myself into in the course of writing this review): A+.