As any woman will tell you, behind every successful marriage there is likely to be a secret or two–for example, that not every single pair of shoes she’s bought in the last fourteen years was reduced to half price. Still, any divorce lawyer who overhears your conversation will attest that secrets, especially significant ones, are not conducive to long-term marital happiness. They can pull a couple apart even if the motive behind them was well-meaning. These five novels defy that axiom: their plots are shaped by secrets that come close to destroying relationships–and in some cases, lives–and yet honesty wins out. The particular reading pleasure is not discovering those secrets, as it might be in a mystery novel, but the emotional fallout of their revelation. Whether belated candor leads to humiliation, rage, or grief, the suspense that builds before the moment a character discovers that a lover has lied to them is of a special, and especially compelling, kind.
Julia Quinn creates utterly charming characters who, generally speaking, lead enviable lives. The hero and heroine of her new novel, Just Like Heaven, are no exception. Marcus Holroyd, the Earl of Chatteris, is handsome and rich, if a bit shy and lonely. Miss Honoria Smythe-Smith is a lovely young woman, albeit humiliated by her lack of success on the marriage market. Quinn’s plot stems from the way even the kindest secrets, secrets kept for someone’s own good, can destroy lives. Some years before the novel begins, Marcus made an ill-advised promise to his closest friend, Honoria’s brother. The promise is one thing–but when he neglects to tell Honoria, the consequences come near to killing him. That one secret ricochets through the novel, leading to a dramatic revelation…and a broken heart.
Stefanie Sloane’s The Devil in Disguise is a debut historical that pits an intelligent but innocent young lady against a rake with secrets of many different kinds. Lord William Randall is a member of a young group of aristocrats, used by the crown in various spying capacities. When Lady Lucinda Grey is threatened, Will is assigned to “court” her, while keeping her safe. Lucinda is no fool, and she mistrusts the motives of the libertine who suddenly appears at her side. But Will soothes her fears by promising that he has “no intent to court her for sport.” That’s true enough–he’s courting her because he was ordered to do so. As in Just Like Heaven, Lucinda’s humiliation on finding out the truth–when she demands whether William plans to steal her dignity, having already stolen her heart–makes for an enthralling reading experience.
In both of these novels, secrets grow from an effort to keep the heroine safe. Nalini Singh’s inventive fantasy Kiss of Snow, reverses the paradigm: the heroine’s secret stems from her wish to protect the hero. Singh’s complex world of Psy and Changelings explodes when alpha male of the SnowDancer wolf pack, Hawke, finds himself wildly attracted to a young Psy woman, Sienna. But Hawke lost his mate at an early age, and hesitates to break Sienna’s heart by failing to bond with her. Sienna, for her part, has a secret that she’s afraid to tell Hawke–because it might impact the entire future of the pack. Sienna is deeply frightened–and until she shares that emotion with Hawke, they cannot form the wild devotion that will allow them to survive the ferocity of Sienna’s unleashed power. This is Nalini Singh’s breakout into hardcover, and it is worth every penny of its new format.
The Soldier by Grace Burrowes deals with an entirely different sort of secret. Devlin St. Just, the Earl of Rosecraft, arrives at his estate to find a thin, dirty nine-year-old girl standing in a dry fountain, only to be told that “in a manner of speaking, the child is, well…Yours.” Devlin has been given the title and estate by the Crown, and the illegitimate daughter of the former earl comes right along with the neglected estate. Devlin is an enchanting, complicated and wonderful character who falls in love with both the girl and with his new neighbor, Emmaline Farnum. The Soldier brings together PTSD, abandonment, illegitimacy and love in an enormously satisfying story. Emmie has the power to mend what war has broken in Devlin: “His grip was that of a drowning man–a dying man–and she would not let him go.” But their love affair is undermined by a secret she feels compelled to keep from him. Here again it is the deceived person who sacrifices his self-respect, by demanding not just honesty, but love. As Devlin puts it, “his dignity wasn’t too high a price to pay if it meant Emmie understood what his feelings were.”
If the other novels in this column have circled around a secret, Mary Kay Andrews’ Summer Rental offers a whole circus of them. Friends Ellis, Julia, and Dorie rent a run-down house in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But even though they’re best friends, it turns out that they’re keeping secrets…from each other and from their spouses. Mr. and Mrs. Perfect are getting a divorce; there are secrets to do with babies and jobs… In fact, everyone they meet–from the gorgeous Ty Bazemore next door, to the runaway Maryn who joins them in the house–is hiding something: “I have a confession to make” is the most often-repeated sentence in the novel. Just like the other novels in this column, unraveling secrets makes for fascinating reading. This is a perfect beach book: the tale of a sandy, flea-bitten summer house and one month in August in which honesty triumphs over silence, and love over lies. Ellis falls in love, and Dorie meets a new guy, and Julie makes a big decision, and Maryn breaks free… and the readers of Summer Rental will stay glued to their sandy beach chairs waiting to see what happens next.
Eloisa James’s latest romance is When Beauty Tamed the Beast.
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