"Virtuoso" is most definitely not my preference when it comes to Historical Romance. It is a very romantic romance, but it wasn't cloyingly sweet (except the ending), and the book does have good, scenic descriptions, flows smoothly, has witty dialogue, especially between and from the secondary characters, and offers a resolution to the internal struggles, if a bit contrived struggles, of the main protagonists.
Blackmailed by her husband's heir, widowed Baroness Roxbury, now masquerading as Mrs. Ellen FitzEngle, resides in a small cottage on an estate in Little Meldon, where she toils away in her gardens, selling her blooms at market and to perfumeries or such for profit. She soon finds herself with a new neighbor, one Lord Valentine Windham - pianist, fifth son of the Duke of Moreland, and one-passionate-kiss-a-year-ago acquaintance of Mrs. FitzEngle - who has won the terribly neglected property and its dilapidated manor in a game of cards from the above mentioned extortionist. And as the repairs on the house begin, so does our love story.
As to our main characters, they are, as Pink Floyd put it, "two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year." They hide behind the figuratively erected facades and assumed identities. Valentine, now plain-old Mr. Windham, successful merchant, is trying to discover who he is apart from the piano (which, because of a hand inflammation, he cannot now play). And Ellen, guilt ridden and annoyingly untrusting, is trying to cope with her lot in life. But these flaws make our characters rich and interesting - quiet a change from the typical hoyden, debutant, or rake encountered in this genre.
What brings this novel down in my estimation is Ellen. While Val is beyond humanly romantic, understanding, and accepting, Mrs. FitzEngle is infuriatingly untrusting, naïve, and inexperienced, sexually (she's been wed for five years, I mean come on!!). Ellen's fear and guilt, which of course lead to her prevarications, are rather contrived. She is well aware of her innocence, yet torments herself and Val, especially toward the end of the novel, refusing to confide, to accept his good intentions, and to commit because she believes she has committed great crimes (but, she knows she is innocent - hmmm!!!). Burrowes could have done better with Ellen's internal struggle. What Burrowes offers with Ellen, left me shaking my head.
Now, the relationship between Ellen and Val takes time to form. However, it is imbued with such serious discussions and mature understandings that, at times, it feels more fictional than real. The sexual tension, attraction could not be felt, and there are two reasons for this: one, because the two protagonists had already met and kissed and two, because Grace Burrowes fails in describing her characters' physiognomies and characteristics as well as their attraction toward each other. The sex scenes, or shall I say sex scene - there was just the one, with the accompaniment of two make-out sessions - were a PG-13 affair, and tarnished with musical metaphors. However, there were no "predator/feral" descriptions in this novel, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Also, there are aspects of this work that defy the reader's expectations of the time period, especially when it comes to character behavior, even secondary character behavior. For example, it is not generally accepted for a Baroness, whether hiding that title or not, to toil away and work for a living. And, a member of the ton, fifth son of a Duke or not or even an Earl, does not typically engage in manual labor, repairing roofs, and barns, and whatnot. However, one could overlook these behaviors, as they adhere and contribute to the bucolic feel of this romance.
Overall, this is not a bad book. It targets the exceedingly sentimental reader; the reader who likes an exaggeratedly tender male protagonist, a very syrupy happy ending, but who does not desire much sizzle. If this is you, then pick this up.
originally on romancecritic