The first Mary Balogh book I ever read was the third in this series, At Last Comes Love, which I fell in love with because it kept me guessing from the first page to the last. In fact, the first three novels in the Huxtable family series were all wonderfully vivid page-turners that I’ve read several times in just a couple of years. The first sign of discord, however, was the fourth book, Seducing an Angel. This book disappointed me, even upon a second reading, although I found I did like it better the second time around.
Which leads me to A Secret Affair. I wanted to like this book. I loved the dark and twisty character of Constantine Huxtable: unable to inherit his father’s title because he was born before his parents could marry, estranged from his cousin and best friend, a totally unrepentant Regency rake. I wanted Con to get his happy ending, wanted it badly. But the woman with whom he chooses to have his “secret affair” is not someone the reader would wish on a favorite character. She is cool, calculating, aloof, choosing Constantine as a dalliance merely because he is a “bad boy” she can dispose of easily at the end of the season. She is remarkably similar, in fact, to the heroine of Seducing an Angel. So after the first few chapters I was resigned to another disappointing read.
I have picked this book up and put it down easily a dozen times since I began reading it in early July. Last night, however, I finally found myself looking at the clock and saying, “Just one more chapter.” What happened? The characters finally got to the point where I felt I would just die if they didn’t get together. They became human to me, as they had not been before. Because suddenly there were stakes involved. When neither thought they cared for the other, you didn’t care either; once one became aware of a possibly unrequited attraction for the other, however, you came to care very much.
This manner of pacing has left me wondering why Mary Balogh chose to write the book this way. I’d be afraid that the reader would lose patience with the story and put it down for good before getting to the really satisfying parts. Taking risks is one thing, disenfranchising your reader is another one entirely.
In addition to this slow building of tension, I noticed, on a technical note, several places where background or previous action information was unnecessarily repeated; it had been said before in much the same manner, with nothing new to be added by the retelling. I thought this made the scenes drag and wished the editor had been a bit more judicious with highlighting and edits.
None of this is to say that A Secret Affair is a bad read. Far from it. It will, perhaps, take more energy to get into the story and to come to care about the characters than in many of Balogh’s previous works. I think it interesting that the three books in the series chronicling the Huxtable women’s love affairs were seemingly better written than the two devoted to the men’s stories. Whether this is due to a change in technique or strategy, I am not sure. But I will say that if you stick with A Secret Affair, you will find it as satisfying as any guilty pleasure ever is. Which is to say “Wickedly so.”