JOINT REVIEW: Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville
Robin and I have both enjoyed Miranda Neville’s novels in the past. When a recent review request for her self-published novel, Secrets of a Soprano, arrived in our inboxes, both of us jumped on it. We decided to review the book together. –Janine
Janine: Fittingly, Secrets of a Soprano begins in an opera house. Maximilian Hawthorne, Viscount Allerton, is in the audience for this performance, and gracing the stage is Teresa (Tessa) Foscari, otherwise known as La Divina. As he watches the singer, Max reflects that only one singer has ever stirred his emotions to this degree, but Foscari cannot be the same woman.
His business partner, the manager of the Regent Opera House that Max co-owns, Simon Lindo, observes that they’ll be ruined. A performance of this caliber at the Tavistock Theatre is sure to draw away the audiences from the Regent. Therefore, Simon asks Max to persuade Foscari to break her contract with the Tavistock and sign a new one with the Regent.
As it happens, Tessa Foscari isn’t entirely happy at the Tavistock. Mortimer, its manager, is a lecher and her contract calls for her part of the proceeds to be paid to her only at the end of the season. In the meantime, Tessa must rely on income from private performances to support herself and her small entourage.
Tessa has recently contacted her long-lost cousin Jacobin (heroine of Neville’s Never Resist Temptation), Countess of Storrington. She’s also searching for English relatives on her father’s side, whose existence her late husband, Domenico, concealed from her.
Years ago, in Portugal, Tessa experienced first love with a young Englishman, whom she hoped to marry. But he disappeared without word, leaving her waiting for hours in a churchyard, and on the rebound, she married Domenico Foscari, who managed her career and negotiated her contracts. When Jacobin commissions Tessa to perform at a musicale at her house, Tessa doesn’t expect the Englishman she loved to be invited.
But Max is there, and up close, he recognizes the Tessa Birkett he once knew. His past romance with her has haunted him for years, leading to his love for opera, his engagement of opera singers as his mistresses, and culminating in his partnership with Lindo in the Regent Opera House.
Hearing that Tessa has claimed a familial connection to Lady Storrington reminds Max of how he learned, on the day he was to propose to her, that she had used him for mercenary purposes.
When Lord Somerville, a man who has competed with Max for opera singers in the past, indicates that he is making progress in his pursuit of Tessa, Max’s anger and resentment are further compounded by jealousy. A reminder that Foscari is well-known to have been Napoleon’s mistress incites his jealousy further, and Max reacts by insulting Tessa publicly.
In the midst of Max’s rediscovery, his mother is busy trying to get her son married to a woman of her choosing. Max is focused on his opera house, a business he is attempting to build without using his inheritance, a point of personal pride. Understanding her son’s desire to be financially independent, Lady Clarissa lures him into a wager: if his opera house doesn’t turn a profit within two seasons and without more capital from Max, then he must allow her to choose his bride.
Max comes to regret the wager, as well as his actions toward Tessa, when it becomes clear that Simon Lindo’s prediction was entirely accurate. With Tessa singing for their competitor’s theater, the Regent isn’t likely to have a profitable season.
Will Max approach Tessa again to try to persuade her to sing for the Regent? Will their meeting fan the flames of their attraction, or will it leave them both feeling more hurt and vulnerable than before? Will secrets, misunderstandings, and the wager between Max and his mother complicate their growing feelings and threaten to come between them? Will they find their way back to one another after all?
There is intelligence to Miranda Neville’s writing that I always appreciate, and it shines through much of this novel. Even when Neville’s plots have elements that many other authors have handled previously, such as the intervention that tore young Tessa and Max apart, this author brings a depth and subtlety to her characterization that elevates her books.
One example of that depth and subtlety is the way Tessa struggles with her anger. Her late and unlamented husband, Domenico, insisted that she craft the persona of a temperamental diva, and throwing things became part of the role she played. But at some point, reality and make-believe began to blend, and when we meet her years later, Tessa has a tendency to throw tantrums.
Much to her credit, she realizes early on how much she hates this habit, and works hard at breaking it now that Domenico is dead. Eventually she arrives at a system for countering the urge to hurl something at someone, and seeing her apply it even when others transgress against her makes her character well-rounded and endearing.
Robin: I completely agree with this. In fact, as I was reading Secrets of a Soprano, I had a number of moments where I thought that if a lesser writer were attempting some of the tropes, the book would fall completely flat for me. The Big Misunderstanding, the Traumatized Heroine, the Romantic but Rebuffed Rake Hero, the Stately, Interfering Mother – there were a lot of clichéd tropes that took on individual life in Neville’s prose.
For example, Tessa’s love of singing feels very authentic, and I really liked the details of the operas she sang and the pains she had to take to protect her voice. She felt like a woman who truly loved what she did and not just a character serving as a vocationally enhanced romantic heroine:
She decided on the popular Caro mio ben that she’d performed at Jacobin’s musicale. In a room this size if she sang at anything like full voice she’d blast her listeners’ eardrums with the force of an explosion. Taking a few breaths she launched into the Italian love song almost sotto voce. It was a lovely tune and she couldn’t but recall the last time she’d sung it, just before she saw Max again for the first time.
Senza di te languisce il cor. Without you my heart languishes.
And so it did. She always sang from the heart but never more truly than now. She sang for Max, pouring her love into the tune, aching for his presence. This subdued performance was one of the best she’d ever given. (Kindle Locations 3560-3565).
I also liked that Max was not the rebel aristocrat. He embraced his role as Viscount Allerton, but also pursued his own business success.
Janine: I loved the details about opera singing too. Another aspect of Neville’s writing that I appreciate is the wit. Here’s an example of what I mean, from a scene in which Tessa is relating an anecdote at a social occasion.
“One should never perform with animals,” Tessa asserted through a chuckle. “One time in Bologna they put hens on the stage for la Finta Giardinera. One of them laid an egg, which wouldn’t have mattered except I trod on it and the bird nipped my ankle.”
“Did you stay on key?’ The question came from Lady Storrington.
“Of course,” said Tessa with a careless wave. “I always stay on key. I did not, however, stay on my feet. I delivered the rest of the aria from a sitting position.” (Kindle Location 1808)
As you can probably tell, I really liked Tessa. She was sympathetic and convincingly adult, even as she struggled with things like her temper and how to finance her household without depending on men. Tessa’s husband had treated her horribly, and was responsible for a sexual trauma in her past, another thing Tessa had to overcome.
But when I take Tessa’s backstory and put it together with the foregrounded part of the book, I end up feeling that too many bad things befell her. She was a lovely heroine and this pile of traumas, deceptions and disasters was more than she deserved and more than the book required.
Robin: I agree, and as a consequence of this, I felt that a lot of these issues got short shrift in the storyline. I mean, a woman who suffered this much should be more screwed up than Tessa was, so in some ways the litany of wrongs that befell her felt shallow to me.
Janine: That’s an excellent point. It is interesting, because Neville’s prior book, The Duke of Dark Desires, also had a heroine who had been through a lot, yet somehow in her case it felt all of a piece and organic to the story and its needs, whereas here the string of misfortunes felt more episodic and less cohesive, so that at some point I balked and felt the author was heaping too much on Tessa.
Robin: I think this goes back to our original conviction that Neville’s writing often buoys less original plot and character types. The quality of the prose can only carry so much, and as much as I appreciated the more nuanced aspects of Max and Tessa’s characters (I also really liked Lindo and wanted to see more of him, actually), I wondered if Neville had kind of resurrected this manuscript from her early writings (especially given its character overlap with Never Resist Temptation), because of the overall inconsistency I felt dogged the book.
Take the pacing. The first couple of chapters contain a good deal of backstory, starting things off slowly until Max and Tessa confront each other face to face. Then we have the Consequences of the Big Misunderstanding and the flurry of activity that causes (i.e. Max does a crappy thing to Tessa), then things seem to fall into place once they actually have an adult conversation. Then The Relationship Crisis occurs, which leads to an extended period of Mutual Misunderstanding, followed by what I found to be an extremely rapid turnaround on Max’s part (am I the only one who found him kind of rash?) and a quick sprint to the HEA.
Janine: Yes, the pacing was uneven. Another issue was Max’s treatment of Tessa. Much of what befell her had nothing to do with Max, but I can think of a couple of situations that he could have handled better and in so doing, saved her some suffering.
Robin: Okay, here’s where I think there’s inconsistency in the novel. On the one hand, we see Max making these kind of rash decisions about Tessa and her motives, and acting on them in ways that have real (and bad) consequences. Then, a few scenes later, he’s realizing that maybe he acted too rashly and he endeavors to have an actual conversation with her, clearing things up and then getting back on track. This pattern occurs a couple of times in the book, and it again it made me wonder if a previously written story was getting a revamp. On the one hand I appreciated that Max wasn’t perfect, but I also wasn’t sure I could trust him not to act rashly in the future, hurting Tessa with his reactions.
Janine: I felt the same way about Tessa’s future with Max. Max had his own vulnerabilities, owing to his and Tessa’s past, as well as to the fact that was heir to a fortune and used to being pursued for his wealth. By the end of the book, I genuinely believed he loved Tessa.
But an aspect of Max’s character that I was deeply uncomfortable with was the way he thought about Tessa’s sexual experiences. Tessa was said to have cheated on her husband, and if it was infidelity that had been the issue, I might have been more sympathetic to Max.
Truth to tell, Domenico was such a horrible, as well as faithless, husband to Tessa that I would have considered her well within her rights to take to bed whomever she so chose even while she was married to him. But I wouldn’t have judged Max so harshly if his “knowledge” that she was an adulteress had been his problem with her.
My beef with Max is that not only was Tessa completely innocent on that score, but Max’s issue with her didn’t seem to be adultery, but rather sexual activity. Here’s an example:
But the thought of the other men she’d bedded was a dagger to his spirit. His sweet, lovely Tessa, mauled by half the men in Europe. (Kindle Location 1574)
Marriage was out of the question. Even if he set aside what she had become, he couldn’t ignore what he owed to his family and name and wed a notorious singer. (Kindle Location 1931)
(My objection here isn’t to his background preventing him from marrying Tessa but rather to his thinking of her as “what she had become.” He might as well call her a slut.)
Given the situations in which Max caused Tessa undeserved pain, this way of thinking really infuriated me. I think it would have bothered me even had Tessa had an active sex life, and even had he not wronged her previously.
But as it was, it made me truly angry at Max. It’s not like he himself was a virgin. He had had a lot more lovers than Tessa, yet never once thought of them as half the women in Europe.
Robin: Yes! He seemed to have a belief in her as faithless, and despite all the women he had been with, he still pursues that double standard when it comes to Tessa. I kept wondering how he would deal with things if her past had been exactly has he imagined it. I did not trust that he would be okay with that, and it diminished him for me.
Janine: Agreed. It diminished him for me too. I think that Neville’s intention may have been to use Max’s jealousy and possessiveness as a way of showing that he was obsessed with Tessa and falling in love with her all over again. But it was problematic for me, obviously.
Robin: I agree with that, and she even makes an attempt to give Max some self-consciousness about his feelings, which I appreciated: “The very sight of her sent him into an agony of longing and repulsion. He wanted her, yes, but he wanted her as she had been, not as she was now.”
Janine: That line pissed me off, actually, because it seemed like he was creating these pure vs. tarnished identities for Tessa that existed only in his mind, and fetishizing the younger Tessa’s virginity.
Robin: I agree, but at least he realizes he’s being an inconsistent cad:
Though not a rake by Somerville’s standards, Max had enjoyed his share of women and none of them had been models of purity. He neither expected not desired his mistresses to be virgins. He didn’t understand why he cared so much about Tessa’s experience. Not that she was his mistress, nor ever likely to be so. She hated him.
Max was close to hating himself too. Or what had happened to him since the day she had returned to London. A man of honor and good sense, a trifle reserved perhaps, but affable and friendly to his fellow humans, had turned into an irrational imbecile who went around ruining inconvenient women for reasons that weren’t only specious but downright unacceptable. (Kindle Locations 1578-1583).
Those are the moments in the book I loved – the places where the intelligence of the writing and the storytelling are fully on display, and you feel like you can trust the story, wherever it goes. Except that this isn’t the end of the misunderstandings between them, and the question of how much Max could, would, and did change is never fully answered for me.
Janine: I really liked the paragraph where he was close to hating himself, too. I appreciated the way the obstacles to Max and Tessa’s marriage were removed, and I closed the book feeling that I was glad Tessa had found happiness, but also that she deserved someone more worthy of her.
Robin: I didn’t feel Max was unworthy of her, but I did start to feel like the obstacles to their happiness became kind of unbelievable near the end of the book. Once Max gets square with his feelings, Tessa’s reaction came across to me as artificial. Not that a woman with her background wouldn’t feel the way she did, but because I never really felt the depth of all those traumas in her character, I didn’t completely buy her late-stage resistance to Max (especially given their background and the passion of their encounters in the book). Like Max, Tessa at times felt almost like two characters stitched uncomfortably together. In fact, I felt alternately engaged and kind of disconnected from the narrative, and I think the combination of the pacing and the character shifts exacerbated that. The scenes where Max and Tessa were exploring their passion were some of the strongest in the book for me, along with the whole fire sequence. But the slow start and the quick finish, for example, had me less engaged.
Janine: With regard to Max’s worthiness – maybe that is too harsh a way to put it. But I had a lot of affection for Tessa and, like you, I didn’t fully trust Max not to act impulsively in the future and perhaps hurt her again.
But I’m on the same page as you about Tessa’s last minute resistance, since it had nothing to do with that aspect of Max but rather with the differences in their class and wealth.
Still, I appreciated the ending a little more than you did, I think, mainly because (SPOILER) for most of the book I expected the long-lost heiress trope to make an appearance—that Tessa’s unknown relatives would make it possible for her to marry Max—but the class and background conflict was resolved in a fresher and more interesting way.
Robin: That’s a good point. I just wish Neville didn’t also throw the “I’m not worthy of love” trope in there, too, for Tessa. I’m not sure it was completely inconsistent with her character, but it didn’t feel completely founded in the progression of her character and the romantic trajectory.
Janine: There is also a secondary romance between Max’s mother, who is in her fifties, and forty-five year old Simon Lindo, Max’s business partner, who is also Jewish, and their romance was delightful. The way they got their happy ending was perfect for both of them as well as for their situation.
Robin: Oh, I really enjoyed those two together and would have loved to see that happen earlier in the novel.
Janine: Yes! I wish that secondary romance had been even more fleshed out.
Robin: That scene where Tessa defends Simon against anti-Semitic remarks made me think of Heyer’s casual anti-Semitism, and Neville’s handling of that issue made it feel almost like an indirect rebuttal of Heyer.
Janine: Tessa’s defense of Simon was excellent for the Regency time period, though the scene was a little discomfiting to read. Part of me wanted Simon to defend himself – I believe he said he didn’t need Tessa’s aid, but the scene made it seem as if perhaps he did.
Robin: So, Janine, what’s your final takeaway? I am excited to see Neville self-publish, because she’s always struck me as such a smart author that I think she is a perfect candidate for self-publishing. Although this was far from a perfect book for me, I definitely hope she will be putting more of her own books out. Secrets of a Soprano ended up a B- for me.
Janine: I saw on Neville’s site that she has signed a contract with Kensington for a new series called Ladies in Disgrace. I’m giving Secrets of a Soprano a B- as well.