REVIEW: The Secret to Seduction by Julie Anne Long
Dear Ms. Long,
For me, reading The Secret to Seduction, was like having a glass of champagne. First the effervescent joy of being introduced to your characters through the liquid clarity of your voice, then the warmth of being immersed in the sensations and emotions that those characters grow to feel, and finally the blissful buzz of the happy ending.
I put off reading this book a while because, though I’d very much enjoyed Beauty and the Spy and liked Ways to be Wicked, I’d heard from a couple of disappointed readers, and even Jayne, though she enjoyed the book and recommended it, was a bit less enthusiastic than I’d hoped.
Silly me. I should know by now that opinions can vary widely, and that, though I have a lot of respect for Jayne’s, it rarely lines up perfectly with mine. I’m so glad I finally picked up the The Secret to Seduction, because for me, it was a delight from start to finish.
Sabrina Fairleigh, the adopted daughter of a vicar, is in love with her father’s curate, Geoffrey Gillray. So when her friend Mary suggests that Sabrina accompany her to a house party at the home of Geoffrey’s cousin Rhys, the earl of Rawden, which Geoffrey will also be attending, Sabrina jumps at the chance. Sabrina wants to become a missionary, and she knows that Geoffrey will be asking his cousin for money with which to finance a mission. She hopes that when the earl of Rawden grants Geoffrey’s request, Geoffrey will ask for her hand in marriage.
Meanwhile, Rhys Gillray, the earl of Rawden and famous poet known as The Libertine, is suffering from boredom and ennui. He is experiencing writer’s block and even the temperamental tiffs of his mistress, the opera singer Sophia Licari, have become less exciting than they used to be. At the bottom of Rhys’ lifestyle is the need to escape guilt for his past misdeeds. Neither Rhys nor Sabrina is aware that that same past connects them, and that Rhys wronged Sabrina before he ever met her.
Therefore, when Sabrina expresses sympathy for those people who are so unfortunate as to be at the mercy of animal passions, Rhys is just bored enough to decide to prove to her that she is just as capable of passion as he or any of his other houseguests.
But what begins as a casual game to Rhys turns into a dangerous whirlpool as he and Sabrina are swept up in their burgeoning attraction to one another, and eventually, they are caught in a compromising position and forced to marry where neither of them wants to. While Rhys and Sabrina reluctantly begin to fall in love, Sabrina’s biological sisters from whom she was separated as a child, Susannah and Sylvie, come closer to finding Sabrina, and the secret from Rhys’ past threatens to tear the newlyweds apart.
The setting (Regency) and setup (rake and virgin) of The Secret to Seduction are as familiar as they get. And if I’ve read one book in which the hero sets out to awaken the heroine to prove a point or in which a couple is caught in an embrace and forced to marry, I don’t know how many I’ve read.
There were a few missteps in the book, too. Sabrina’s adoptive brothers and Rhys’ surviving sister (his mother and other sister died when he was young) are mentioned so briefly that I wondered what the point was in mentioning them at all. Susannah, Sylvie and their husbands get very close to finding Sabrina at one point, and then it takes them a lot longer to resume their search than it seems to me it should. At age thirty, Rhys is a war hero, a successful, sought after poet, a man who restored his family’s fabulous fortune, an earl, and gorgeous too — it seems a bit much even for a romance hero. Also, he is not shown attempting to write much or hobnobbing with other poets, so that aspect of his character feels weak.
And although I’m far from an expert on the Regency, I have my doubts as to the historical accuracy of some details — for example, would a marriage between an earl and a woman of unknown birth really have been accepted by society? And once married, would it be acceptable for Sabrina, now a countess, and for Susannah, a viscountess, to associate with their brother-in-law, Tom Shaughnessy, who was born in the gutter and once owned a bawdy theater?
Given all this, how and why do I still love The Secret to Seduction? Let me count the ways:
I. The Voice
Much has been said lately about the value of a strong writing voice. For me, few books illustrate this as well as yours do. You have a voice to turn a choir of angels envious. When I read your books, I can almost feel it twining around me like a vine that then puts forth beautiful blossoms. To illustrate, here is a paragraph of description from page five:
But only little patches of snow remained, scattered across the green like lacy handkerchiefs. The wan early sunlight was gaining in strength, and the bare birch trees crowding the sides of the road shone nearly metallic in it, making Sabrina blink as they flew past the carriage. She wondered, idly, why trees didn’t become woolly in winter, like cats and cattle, but instead dropped all of their leaves and went bare.
In just three sentences, there’s so much to dazzle me. The metaphor of the snow scattered like lacy handkerchiefs. The imagery in the adjectives and verbs. Instead of trees just being on the road side, they are crowding it. They don’t just shine; they shine “nearly metallic.” And rather than describing the carriage as going past the trees, it is the other way around, the trees that “flew” (another great verb) past the carriage. There is also a lovely rhythm and cadence to the words, and some nifty sound effects, like the alliteration of “woolly in winter” and “cats and cattle.” Finally there is the wonderful contrasting of the trees to the animals, which grow fur in winter rather than shed.
Except for the rare jarring metaphor, yours is the kind of writing style that can cast a spell over me and carry me away from the stress of my daily life as few things can.
But this paragraph isn’t just great description, it’s also great characterization, because it reveals so much about Sabrina. Her youthful sense of wonder, her being awake to the world around her (wonderfully reinforced with her blinking), and her whimsy and sense of humor all come through in just three sentences. And that brings me to the next thing I loved about your book.
II. The Characters
Let me start with in an unlikely place — with the villain and side characters. It is very unusual to come across genre fiction that gives such careful attention to them as you do. Oftentimes, in many of the books I read, the villain or the other woman or the hero’s friend can seem more like afterthoughts, devices to create conflict or move the plot in a certain direction, than like living breathing people. That isn’t the case in The Secret to Seduction. Here, even minor characters can reveal hidden dimensions, something that charms me more than I can say.
As I’ve indicated before, Sabrina and Rhys fall into types, the young, virginal heroine and the jaded rake. What makes me interested in them, however, is the way that you give individual flaws and vulnerabilities that makes these characters feel fresh to me. I’ve already enumerated Sabrina’s humor, whimsy and alertness. Let me add that she is also more sensual, proud and temperamental than she wants to admit at first, and more clever and insightful than Rhys wants to own up to.
In some ways, The Secret to Seduction reads almost like a coming of age story, one about Sabrina’s awakening — to passion, to life, to the vulnerability that love can bring as well as to the happiness that it makes possible.
Rhys too, is very proud, and for him a lot of that pride is bound up in the fact that his venerable family lost almost everything when Rhys was very young. The family name and image are of utmost importance to Rhys because he lost his parents and one sister when he was quite young. Unlike Sabrina, Rhys knows the pain of loss and therefore fears to fall in love, especially when he realizes how his past connects him to Sabrina. He carries a heavy weight of guilt that he seeks to escape, and I, like Jayne, was glad that his past transgression wasn’t a minor one.
Additionally, I loved that like Sabrina, he too was clever and insightful. Both Rhys and Sabrina see deeper into the other than the other wants them to. And so, they uncover each other in layers, not just physically, as Rhys awakens Sabrina’s senses and comes to feel more alive than he has in years, but also emotionally and psychologically. Which brings me to the next thing I loved.
III. The Chemistry
There is a certain magical alchemy that can exist in fiction just as it can in real life, and just as it is difficult to explain the whys and wherefores of its presence in our world, it can be tough for me to put my finger on why, it is exactly, that I do or don’t feel sparks between a pair of lovers in a book.
Maybe it is the way that Rhys and Sabrina can peer into one another’s souls. Maybe it is their humorous exchanges of dialogue. Maybe it is that they share the same strengths — including deep familial loyalty, intelligence and sensuality and vulnerability. Maybe it is that they have their flaws — pride and temper –in common, too, as I’ve already mentioned. It could be any or all of these things together that make me feel that they belong together despite the very different lives they lead before they meet, and make me want to see them find happiness together.
IV. The Conflict
Another of the things I loved in this book was that even after they are very attracted to one another and things get pretty intimate between them, Rhys and Sabrina are still quite reluctant to marry each other. They realize that chemistry isn’t everything, and that they may not have enough in common. Their marriage starts off on unsteady footing because they both feel trapped to some degree.
Likewise, I loved Rhys’ determination to lead a separate life from Sabrina. I know Jayne felt that some of his actions in the book’s middle section made her less sympathetic to him, but I really enjoyed the way these actions made me feel his conflicted emotions toward his marriage to Sabrina more intensely. So often in romances rakes settle down with a speed and commitment that seems unlikely to me, given their past. This was not the case here, and that made the book more compelling to me than many other rake reformation stories.
Sabrina’s realization that attempting to build a marriage with Rhys might lead nowhere but to heartache gives her conflicted feelings, too, as do the moments when she comes to understand how important it is to Rhys that she behave like a countess rather than a village girl. And when Rhys’s secret finally comes to light, the conflict between the couple becomes even more intense.
All of this is just a long way of saying, perhaps, that after reading a lot of books in which there is nothing serious to keep the hero and heroine apart, it was great to read something like this, where the characters’ mixed emotions were very real and kept me jolted awake and turning the pages to see how things would be resolved.
V. The Way it Made Me Feel
Just as I felt when I read Beauty and the Spy, I’m astonished that a book can sparkle with so much freshness when it follows so many conventions so closely. All I know is that against all odds, this book almost made me forget that I’d ever encountered those familiar aspects before.
As a reviewer, I try to give weight to originality of plots or to books that go unexpected directions. Here the originality of the language, the charm of the characters, the magic of the chemistry between them and the strength of the conflict that threatens to tear them apart were all enough to enchant me so much that, if the plot was not so new, I hardly noticed or cared. I was so entertained, involved and happy that little else mattered.
I’ve tried to lay out my thoughts on how exactly the spell your writing weaves works as clearly and in as much detail as I can; tried to work out for myself and for our readers the secrets of this particular seduction. And though I’ve written what just might be the lengthiest review this blog has seen, I’m still don’t think I’ve got it all figured out. But now I’ve come to that QED we readers rely on in the end: that joyous emotional response that goes to my head like champagne. Proof positive that I’ve just read a keeper. A-.