Laura Lee Guhrke
October 2008, European Historical Romance (1890s [Victorian] England)
Avon, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061456829 Part of a series
I’ve had a string of bad reading luck lately. Three of the five books I last reviewed were Ds, with more mediocre stories in between. However, my luck turned when I picked Secret Diaries of a Gentleman, the third in Laura Lee Guhrke’s popular Girl Bachelors series. Like many other readers, I loved the first two, but this one may be the best yet.
With help from her good friend the Duchess of St. Cyres, Maria Martingale is achieving a lifelong goal with the opening of her own patisserie. The accomplished pastry chef is overjoyed when she finds a clean, modern shop in Mayfair to rent. However, she soon learns that her neighbor and landlord is Phillip, Marquess of Kayne. Maria’s father worked for his family for years, and they grew up together – until he became marquess, ended their friendship, and forcibly prevented Maria’s elopement with Phillip’s younger brother twelve years earlier. She’s never forgiven him for his snobbery then, and it’s clear he still is the same when he tries to evict her from the shop.
Phillip is concerned that Maria is once again after his brother, a young man who is about to become engaged to a wealthy heiress with good connections. So Phillip does his best to keep them apart, even as the brother seems eager to rekindle his friendship with Maria. In doing so, Phillip is brought again and again into her presence and he is reminded anew of his long-buried attraction and affection for Maria – one that he always reined in because they were not of the same class.
The strength of this book is in the characters. I fell in love with Phillip reading this story. Ms. Guhrke does a wonderful job of slowly revealing his feelings, deepening his character, and revealing the truth behind his motivations and feelings. He feels very much bound by society’s dictates and a gentleman’s honor, so he says and does things that seem priggish or hardheaded, but his struggles also make him incredibly real and sympathetic. My favorite parts of the story were the time the author spends in his head. However, his initial reaction to Maria – that she is set on seducing his brother into marriage – is never fully reconciled with his character later on, nor is it ever resolved, fading instead into the background.
Maria, too, is a great character. She has a strong sense of self and a lot of determination and, though she is a bit stubborn at times, her hesitations are understandable. I thought her epiphany at the end was wonderful. My only complaint is that the character, voice, and mannerisms of the Maria in Wicked Ways of a Duke didn’t quite match up with those of this book, though that isn’t exactly a flaw in the story.
The interaction between Maria and Phillip is wonderful, their chemistry strong. Tension and emotion are both very real with them. There are some powerful moments and conversations between them, one incredibly reminiscent of my favorite scene from Pride and Prejudice.
Authentic-sounding period dialogue is another strength of Ms. Guhrke’s, as are the details of late 19th century life. I liked reading about the technology developed during the mid-to-late 1800s, perhaps because it’s somewhat rare among historicals to be set this late in the Victorian era. And, as an amateur baker, I loved the food details, the descriptions of the pastries and desserts. It made me want to go whip up a batch of cookies or decorate a cake.
My greatest disappointment in this book was that it wasn’t longer; I dreaded the last page, because that would mean the story would be over. Secret Desires of a Gentleman is one of the highly anticipated books this fall, and I know fans of the series will not be disappointed.
-- Jane Granville
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