DUELING REVIEW: The Shadow and the Star, Part I
Note: I asked Janine to join me for this review and it turns out we had Thoughts. Many, many Thoughts. So many that we’ve split this review into three parts. This is Part I. –Jennie
Jennie: The Shadow and the Star is a sequel of sorts to The Hidden Heart; the hero is a very minor (though pivotal) character seen as a child in the first book, and the hero and heroine of that book are prominent secondary characters in the Shadow and the Star. (I only say “of sorts” because they were written five years apart and Kinsale really grew as a writer in that time, I think.)
Janine: Agreed. I read The Hidden Heart years ago, after reading The Shadow and the Star, and I found it disappointing. Tess (heroine of The Hidden Heart) was more interesting and even heroic in The Shadow and the Star than in her own book.
Jennie: I recalled that The Shadow and the Star was at one point, at least, Janine’s favorite Kinsale (mine was Flowers from the Storm, though I considered TS&TS a close second). So I thought I’d invite her to do a joint review on this one, and luckily, she agreed!
Janine: I have so many thoughts on this book that you may regret inviting me. It’s interesting to revisit a book I once loved and have such a different experience with now. Between about 1992 and 1997 this was my favorite romance novel. Putney’s Uncommon Vows was my favorite up until I read TS&TS and Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold displaced TS&TS from the #1 spot in 1997. For My Lady’s Heart eventually became my favorite Kinsale. But for a while there in the mid-1990s The Shadow and the Star was unparalleled in my estimation.
Jennie: I did remember later that you favored For My Lady’s Heart. I’m a little nervous about rereading that one because I remember having some trouble with it the first time around.
On to The Shadow and the Star:
The story opens in 1887; London is full of bustle and foreign visitors due to the upcoming Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Miss Leda Etoile is awakened in the small and poor attic room she rents, convinced that there is someone in the room with her. She investigates, but finding no one, settles back into sleep.
Leda was raised in extremely genteel poverty by Miss Myrtle Balfour of South Street; her father is unknown and her birth mother (“a frivolous Frenchwoman”, whose influence Leda views with shame) died in labor.
Janine: I was unclear about how and why Miss Myrtle came to raise Leda. Leda was likely born out of wedlock and I didn’t see a reason for Miss Myrtle to take her in if Miss Myrtle was anything like her friends– genteel, snobbish, and impoverished. It seems odd that Leda wouldn’t remark on that or display curiosity about it.
Jennie: Did you feel that there was a suggestion that Miss Myrtle was Leda’s actual mother? There were several references to “that unspeakable man” whom Miss Myrtle had gotten involved with in her youth, and I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be significant. I don’t remember if I noticed this when I first read TS&TS, but it seemed strange.
Janine: It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely because I doubt the genteel, snobbish South Street ladies would have accepted either Leda or Miss Myrtle if there had been any suspicion that this could be the case. And I don’t see a reason for Miss Myrtle to bestow a French surname on Leda, or, if Leda was indeed her daughter, not provide for Leda better than she did.
Jennie: It was also strange that Leda didn’t have more curiosity about her parents, but I felt maybe she was supposed to be a perfect counterpoint to Samuel, who also had no way of finding out who his parents were.
Janine: That didn’t occur to me. Samuel didn’t display that much curiosity about his biological parents either, but in his case, it was more understandable.
Jennie: Miss Myrtle tried to provide for Leda upon her death, but a combination of bad luck and Miss Myrtle’s snooty relatives force Leda into penury. Leda finds work as a dressmaker and shopgirl and barely survives on the paltry salary the job brings.
The morning after Leda’s strange nighttime interlude, a delegation of high-ranking Japanese women arrive at the shop for a fitting. Awkwardness ensues as it turns out that none of the party speaks a word of English, and of course no one in the shop speaks Japanese. The day is saved when a delegation from Hawaii arrives, bringing with them Lady Tess (the aforementioned heroine of The Hidden Heart), her daughter, Lady Catherine (called Kai) and an extraordinarily handsome man – Mr. Samuel Gerard. Mr. Gerard, it so happens, is fluent in Japanese.
Samuel was brought to Hawaii eighteen years before, as a child. Lady Ashland – Tess – had sought him for years, after witnessing his abuse at the hands of her late and unlamented husband. Now Samuel is grown, handsome and successful, but terribly scarred by the events of his childhood.
While Leda does not recognize Samuel at the dressmaker’s shop, Samuel does recognize Leda – he’s her unseen nighttime visitor. Though the word is never used in the book, Samuel is, by modern popular definition, a ninja.
Janine: Yes. A white ninja, so there’s cultural appropriation there. More on that later. Samuel has an excellent reason to lurk in Leda’s bedroom so I didn’t get that much of a stalker vibe. In the hands of another author, it might have bothered me a lot more.
Jennie: I felt like I should have been more disturbed by it, especially when it turns out that he watches her undress at one point. But Samuel is so ashamed of his own sexuality that it conversely made the Peeping Tom behavior feel more innocent.
Janine: That’s a great point.
Jennie: Samuel’s reason for using Leda’s room as a hiding place (that, indeed, is why he’s been using it) becomes clear fairly quickly. She ends up catching him on another night when his remarkable sensory powers fail him and he trips over a sewing machine that’s been moved and breaks his leg. Leda makes the impetuous decision not to turn Samuel into the authorities, and he in turn offers her a job as his secretary.
Janine: I had a lot of frustration with Leda in the lead up to that. Rather than holding on to her job long enough to find another, she quits in a huff when Madame Elise, the dressmaker, conveys a letter from an “admirer” who wants to make Leda his mistress. Given that she was living on the edge of pennilessness, it was a costly luxury for her to quit on the spot.
Afterward, she visits Miss Myrtle’s friends to ask for a personal reference so that she can apply for another job, and they say that she should give her shopgirl position more of a chance. She does not explain that she has already left or why—even though they are genteel enough to have approved of her decision.
Later, she sells one of her dresses to support herself but she doesn’t haggle over the price because it “had seemed agonizingly coarse to argue with a clothes stall woman over pecuniary matters.”
And when, in a stroke of good fortune, Miss Myrtle’s friends decide to provide a reference after all, she does not tell them that she’s facing eviction and her need is urgent. Instead she just flails while they dither over finding a lost etiquette book with a template for how to write a good letter.
Jennie: I found that all in keeping with Leda’s character and the way she’d been raised. It is frustrating to read about (the ladies irritated me at times), but it felt like Leda was brought up in a tradition where it really was considered better to starve to death quietly in a corner than cause any kind of vulgar scene. Leda is not remotely worldly, street-smart or tough.
Janine: I agree it’s in keeping with her characterization and that Leda came across as woefully unprepared for the realities of her new life. But that didn’t keep her choices from being frustrating. A lot of people may say or even think that they would rather starve than do something unseemly but when faced with starvation or eviction, few carry it so far.
Throughout most of this, Leda has no way to know that Samuel will come into her life, much less offer her a job, so her choices really make no sense, given the alternatives. For that matter, taking a job with Samuel is a greater breach of etiquette than all the things she refrained from doing out of genteel ideals. So it doesn’t make sense, but Kinsale does make it convincing—a tribute to her skills as a writer.
Despite all this I liked Leda. She was insightful, thoughtful and honorable, and Kinsale did a wonderful job of showing how close to the edge she lived, how her integrity was threatened by the temptations and depredations that surrounded her, how her hopes would rise but then be crushed by circumstances. I ended up caring about her a lot.
Jennie: Leda is brought into the Ashland family fold, but her relationship with Samuel – the unspoken attraction that neither of them is remotely equipped to deal with – complicates things. It doesn’t help that Samuel asks Leda for advice on how to court Lady Kai.
Janine: I had believability issues with how this came about as well. Samuel is a successful and so presumably busy shipping magnate, so why was the position of his secretary open? He should have had one before Leda. Also, but for the one time when she books passage for him, we never see Leda do any secretarial work (I was waiting for Samuel to find out that she lied to him about her typing skill but this never happens).
Jennie: I thought he mostly hired her because he wanted advice on courting Kai and because he wanted to keep Leda around. It was pretty clear to me that he didn’t want or need her secretarial services.
Janine: Absolutely. That was clear to me as well. But given that Samuel was running two shipping companies, he should have needed secretarial services. His motive for hiring Leda, I thought, was to make her feel so grateful for his rescue that she wouldn’t reveal what he’d been doing in her room. But regardless of his reason for hiring her, she was so scandal-averse that he should have had to provide a convincing pretext rather than a flimsy one.
Leda’s motivation for staying is strengthened a bit when she is welcomed by the Ashlands because she’s so helpful when it comes to social etiquette.
Jennie: I forgot to say, I really loved that part and how Leda interacted with and advised the family. They were a little over-the-top eccentric, with their wild animal menagerie, etc. – but they were a lovable family and I really enjoyed seeing Tess and Gryf again.
Janine: Yes, their quirkiness was a little twee, but I liked them. I remember thinking at one point that I’d rather read a book about Kai and her suitor, Lord Haye. However, the Ashlands’ need of Leda’s help is undermined when she references them alternately as Lord Ashland and Lord Gryf. Lady Ashland and Lady Tess, Lady Kai and Lady Catherine. A marquess and a marchioness are Lord and Lady Lastname. I can overlook such things in the other characters but Leda is supposed to be an expert who cares about adhering to social rules.
Jennie: This is where my relative ignorance of such things is bliss – I didn’t even notice! You’re right of course, though, and it would have bothered me too, had I noticed.
One thing I don’t think I was quite prepared for in this reread is how disturbed and disturbing Samuel’s attitude towards sex was. I had thought I remembered that aspect of the story pretty well, but remembering is different from the visceral experience of reading it again. In part it bothered me at times because it felt like it was hard to see a possible HEA for someone so damaged.
Janine: To that point, I closed the book wondering what would happen if someday Leda just wasn’t in the mood. He was so sensitive to rejection that I wasn’t sure he’d be able to cope.
Jennie: Samuel idealizes Kai, who is in almost every way his sister, as a “pure” object of love. He is so sexually repressed that he imagines a marriage to Kai without ever thinking about the physical intimacy that would entail. It goes beyond just the fact that Samuel doesn’t see Kai in a sexual way – that’s actually a good thing, since, again, they were raised essentially as siblings. Samuel’s idealizes Kai *because* he perceives her as unsullied.
Janine: We should probably mention that the first half of the book has a dual timeline and that the other timeline covers Samuel’s growing up years and his training in martial arts with Dojun, his Japanese mentor. In one such flashback, when he is eleven or so, we see his determination to marry Kai. He thinks, “Kai was his. He protected her. He was going to make sure her life was always exactly as it should be. Nothing was ever going to hurt her or frighten her or make her really cry.” So I think his desire to marry her is also a way to vicariously experience a more innocent childhood and a safer life than the one he’s had.
Jennie: That’s a good point. I felt that in part Samuel wanted to marry Kai to protect that unsullied status. And that, not too put too fine a point on it, seemed creepy.
Janine: Yes, especially she was only three or four years old when he got this notion. In adulthood he reflects that he had “longed for her purity to absolve him of what he was.” Not only is this squicky, it’s self-serving. Kai did not want to marry him. Tess and Gryf did not feel he needed to be good enough. The drive to prove himself was solely his and due to his trauma, but plenty of traumatized people have enough maturity to recognize that it’s not all about them.
Jennie: In contrast, Samuel imagines Leda (who is one of the most innocent heroines I’ve come across in a romance) as some sort of siren; at times he blames her or unfairly imagines she is tempting him deliberately. In short, Samuel suffers from a very severe Madonna/whore complex. (To be fair, he despises his own appetites much more than he blames anyone else.)
Janine: He views Leda as sexually experienced but I didn’t notice him blaming her or imagining that she was tempting him. I thought it was his own desires and temptation that gave him angst.
Jennie: I thought he did during the brandied cherry scene (which I thought was very hot, both times I read it!). He pulls away from her and thinks, “He expected…something-pique or indignation, that he would not give in to her enticement.” He also has rather harsh thoughts about some street prostitutes he encounters at one point. But I agree that it’s all wrapped up in his self-loathing.
Janine: Great point (At one time I too thought this scene was hot, but this time around it bored me). I forgot about that.