REVIEW: The Virtuoso by Grace Burrowes
Dear Ms. Burrowes:
I have been anxious to read your books since The Heir came out and circumstances (and other books) have always interfered with that goal until this month. I bought The Virtuoso the day that it came out and sat down one evening with great anticipation. The sad fact is that there scarcely seems a page goes by that does not include some kind of historical inaccuracy. The unstated invitation is to enter the book and put aside any form of reality and simply immerse oneself in the Burrowes world, as it is constructed. The voice is lovely but the period feel of this story ranges from Regency to Victorian (both early and late) to even modern day sensibilities. There is no resemblance to the Regency period as written by Heyer, Austen or even Quinn.
I can’t really catalog all the errors in the book and while I am a historical rube, there were obvious ones such as the hero, Val Windham being referred to constantly as Mr. Windham. This is explained later that it is at Val’s insistence but people who do know he is a duke’s son refer to him as Mr. Windham before he expresses his desire to be plain mister. Val did not have a valet despite coming from a wealthy titled family and having quite a bit of money of his own. Instead, his friends such as a son of an Earl and another gentlemanhelp him dress and undress and ready for his bath. In other scene, the landed gentry friend actually shaves Val and unbuttons Val’s pants for him. Val is highly regarded for own two piano factories and being a wealthy “merchant.” This is a duke’s son, the youngest, but a member of the nobility, and he and all of his friends (nobility and gentry) are doing manual labor refurbishing his own estate.
There is a certain nonchalance in which class is treated. For instance, Val dallying with a maid in a friend’s home. Val didn’t seem the type to exert his power over lowly help and take advantage of her in that fashion. Instead, it is just another example of the fluidity of class in the Burrowes book. It’s a modern sensibility, at times reading like a contemporary rather than a Regency set historical.
Ellen, the widow, baring her feet and ankles to dangle her naked feet in a pond next to Val, whose breeches are rolled up around his bare calves. Then he whips off his shirt and uses it to dry her feet. It is the country and Ellen is a widow, but it seemed odd. They are mere acquaintances although they both feel an attraction toward the other but this scene is on the heels of Ellen chiding Val for using her christian name without her permission.
This propriety mismatch occurs throughout the book. At one point, Val is sitting with Ellen, at night and alone, with her in her nightgown and with Val’s arm around her. He muses that perhaps he should have written to her after stealing a kiss but then acknowledges that it would not have been proper:
Now he wished he’d written, though it would hardly have been proper, even to a widow.
Val often runs about with just a shirt that he sheds at any given moment but notes:
Val quirked an eyebrow at his friend, who had foregone cravat and waistcoat in deference to the building heat. “You’re in dishabille.”
Later Val and Ellen are lying outside during the day on a blanket. They nap in a spoon fashion. They awaken and proceed to touch each other intimately, with Val pulling up Ellen’s dress and Ellen removing Val’s shirt. There is no concern exhibited by either that servants or individuals working on Val’s home just a walk away could come upon them. Even in a contemporary, most individuals aren’t so brazen as to engage in public coitus like this without even a smidge of concern.
The plot is this. Val is a virtuoso of the piano but after his brother died, he began suffering pain and discomfort in his hand. He is advised to not use his hand and it is suggested that he may not be able to play piano again. Rather than resting it, as instructed, so that he may play piano again, Val decides that he can do gross motor skill activities such as laboring which includes roofing and other refurbishments of an estate he won in a card game. (As an aside, was there a delineation of fine v. gross motor skills at this time?)
Ellen is the Baronness Roxbury, Roxbury being one of the oldest titles short of the monarchy. She lives on the estate that Val has won and apparently met Val a year ago where they flirted and shared a scorching kiss. She also grows flowers and makes soaps and lotions. These she sells in the village from a wagon. There is some secret about her percuniary difficulties.
Ellen and Val rekindle their attraction when Val tries to come to terms with his infirmity. Val tells Ellen that he can’t offer for her because of his crippled hand, but he does want to dally with her. About half way into the book, a suspense plot is introduced.
Another drawback is the huge cast of characters. There are so many people in this story and it is quite the challenge to place how they are all interrelated. For instance, Nick is a character referred to in the beginning as having overprotective tendencies toward Val. He’s a friend but why should he send his brother and the sons of another friend to “spy” on Val?
Val extended a hand, recognizing the tall blond fellow from his friend Nick’s wedding to Darius’s sister Leah just a few weeks past.
Nick himself does show up for a scene in the latter part of the book along with any number of men who may have appeared in previous books (or not). When the story is just about Val and Ellen without all the extraneous people, it’s much easier to catch the threads of the story. And there is a lot to like in this book. There is some lovely imagery such as when Val is sitting next to Ellen who is in her nightgown and wrapper on the back porch of her home and she is rubbing salve into his inflamed left hand.
As she worked, he felt tension, frustration, and anger slipping down his arm and out the ends of his fingers, almost as if he were playing—
HIs arm is a barometer for his feelings. Everyone recognizes it before Val despite it being spelled out for him by his doctor/Viscount friend. His identity is that of being the Virtuoso, the fine musician. It is what set him apart in a family of five boys and various number of sisters. He regularly refers to Herr Beethoven and I found it strangely ironic that Val could idolize Beethoven without acknowledging Beethoven himself was a handicapped musician.
Ellen is a lonely widow who feels insubstantial because of her inability to provide an heir to her deceased husband. She dropped the title and does not socialize with the locals other than to sell her wares. She’s a bit moody, a bit secretive, a bit sad. Her affection for Val wasn’t just sexual in nature but arose out of a need for comfort and companionship. I felt like we knew Val better; however, as much of the story seemed from his point of view. Perhaps this was an intentional effort to make Ellen more mysterious.
The tone of the story is gentle; the physical relationship graphic and sensual; the unwinding langorous. I found Ellen and Val both engaging. I enjoyed how the slowly the physical part of the relationship developed, no matter how inappropriate their encounters. The prose is very nice.
This book would read so much better as a fantasy historical or perhaps even a country set contemporary. If the setting wasn’t “historical”, then perhaps the obvious thumbing of authenticity wouldn’t really bother me. Unfortunately, nearly every scene had me raising my eyebrows despite all the potential. I wished that I could have accepted the invitation to lose myself in the text, but I simply could not do it. C-