Tess Collier has spent the last decade growing up while traveling the world with her adventure-seeking naturalist father, a wealthy earl. When he suddenly falls ill with a fever in the middle of the Brazilian jungle, Tess's father elicits a promise from her that she will return home to England and marry well, so when he dies, she embarks on a dangerous six month journey to a Brazilian port city to fulfill that promise. When Tess arrives, she immediately goes to her father's old friend, Mr. Taylor, who has been appointed as her guardian. Mr. Taylor is unable to make the voyage to England himself, so he enlists the help of blockade running ship's captain, Gryphon Frost, who has done work for Tess's father in the past. Mr. Taylor not only entrusts Gryf with Tess's safe passage to England, but also asks him to stay for a while to watch over her and ensure that she finds a good husband who is not merely a fortune hunter. Gryf's initial attraction to Tess is strong, making him rather reluctant to take on such a job, as he has no interest in falling in love with anyone, due to a painful past. However, the money that Mr. Taylor is offering would help immensely with the expenses that he has already incurred in refurbishing his ship for the journey, as well as getting a new shipping business off the ground, so he eventually agrees.
What Tess doesn't know is that her handsome sea captain is really Gryphon Meridon, the Fifth Marquess of Ashland. Gryf has been operating under numerous aliases for over a decade since his entire family was brutally murdered in a pirate attack that had been engineered by a family relation who coveted the title. He was only a child at the time of the attack and though left for dead himself, became the only survivor, except for the first mate who has looked after him ever since. On his deathbed, Gryf's uncle had willed everything to him, but when Gryf tried to return to the family estate in England, another attempt was made on his life. Believing that the evidence he has of his identity would not be enough to convince a court of law, he has been living in hiding ever since.
During the voyage to England, Gryf and Tess begin to have feelings for one another, and once they arrive and spend even more time together, they fall deeply in love. Even though Gryf technically outranks Tess, he does not believe himself to be a suitable match for her because of his circumstances. When Gryf's cousin, Stephen Eliot, the son of the man who stole Gryf's title and a depraved man himself becomes a serious suitor for Tess, Gryf knows that he cannot allow him to marry her. Gryf reluctantly agrees to marry Tess himself, but the machinations of another woman drives a wedge between them, sending Tess directly into Stephen's arms anyway. Gryf instead sails back to Brazil to inform Mr. Taylor of Tess's folly before heading for parts unknown. Once rescued from her perverted husband, it will take all of Tess's courage and determination to right the wrongs of the past and convince Gryf that they are indeed meant for each other. Gryf and Tess's story sweeps them along from the Amazon jungle, to the ballrooms of London, to the sparkling blue waters and sandy beaches of Tahiti and back again, as they search for the love that is hidden deep in their hearts.
Throughout the course of reading The Hidden Heart, I found myself having a love/hate relationship with this book. This is a highly unusual phenomenon for me, but quite simply there were things that I really liked about the story and things that I really disliked about it. To start with the positives, Laura Kinsale is obviously an author of some talent who writes about rather unique topics in rather unique settings, embodying a certain intelligence in her work. She is an author who appears to do her homework, as she writes in impressive and prolific detail about her subjects. Ms. Kinsale also seems to have a knack for creating sensual moments out of the merest glance, touch or kiss, which is more than some authors can wring out of full-chapter love scenes. She was also good at creating an air of adventure within the narrative, and a sense of wild, free-spiritedness within the hero and heroine, a feeling that neither could be fully "tamed". I loved the idea of Tess's exploits in the Amazon jungle and Gryphon sailing the high seas, at one with his beloved ship and the ocean. I thought these things added to the romanticism of the story, and the love scenes on the deserted Tahitian atoll were of the type that I would dearly love to see more of in romance novels.
On the downside though, I thought that The Hidden Heart seemed to suffer from pacing issues. There were times when I just didn't want to stop reading and other times when I just couldn't wait to get to the next exciting passage. I think there were perhaps a couple of different reasons for this. First and foremost, it seemed that Ms. Kinsale was trying to write a sweeping epic in about one third the space. Though there aren't many specifics about dates, the narrative seems to span about 2-3 years. There are times when several months elapse from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next which was something that I found to be rather jarring. I had to completely reorient myself to the new time and setting, only to have the same thing happen again a few chapters later. The other main problem with pacing, I felt, was the on-again, off-again nature of Gryf and Tess's relationship that left me feeling like I was watching a tennis match. I would no sooner get excited about their seeming reconciliations than they would be cruelly torn apart again by the end of the chapter, a plot device which I found to be extremely exhausting to read. All in all this is a highly character-driven story which in all honesty has a very limited plot. Ms. Kinsale also uses dialog very sparingly, seeming to prefer instead to pad the novel with lengthy passages of prose. I felt that more use of the spoken word would have sped things up a bit and added interest to the story, as well as some much-needed lines of communication between the hero and heroine who suffered greatly from numerous misunderstandings.
Gryphon and Tess were well-drawn characters who I really wanted to like, and sometimes did, because they were generally nice people who had simply had a run of bad luck. At other times though, I would have truly liked to shake some sense into them, especially Gryf. He was his own worst enemy in the truest sense of the phrase. There was a part of me that understood and sympathized with his reluctance to love, due to the losses in his past, but I really felt like it was taken too far. Gryf had declared his love to Tess early on in the book when he first agreed to marry her, but then every subsequent time a chance presented itself, he cruelly denied that emotion to both her and himself. There came a point where his disavowals of love simply became tiring. When the happy ending finally came, it was nice, but by then I had almost ceased to care. I love a good tortured hero, but Gryf was nothing short of frustrating at times. I really enjoy stories where a tormented soul allows love to change them, and I can follow along in their journey as they blossom and grow. Unfortunately, Gryf was not that sort of character. He merely fought all softer feelings, becoming more and more miserable as the story progressed until he was magically transformed at the very end, and there was never a satisfying explanation as to how he had finally broken free of the emotional prison in which he had locked himself all those years.
I found Tess to be a more agreeable character. I liked the spunk she showed in defying the feminine conventions of the time by being a scientist who had fearlessly traipsed all over the world. I loved her collection of plants and animals and her passion for all things in nature. I also admired her boldness in pursuing Gryf when he was being so reserved and trying to stay away from her. Understandably though, that boldness had it's limits when Gryf kept pushing her away. Admittedly, Tess was the one who pushed him away at one point, which was something that I never fully related to, as I felt that she was far too willing to accept the word of a woman who she hardly knew or even liked over that of the man she supposedly loved. Although in her defense, Gryf barely even responded to the accusations, much less tried to fight for the love he had so recently declared, yet another thing that irritated me about him. I also appreciated Tess's intrepid nature in dealing with the inaccurate charges brought against Gryf over an incident with the villain, a notion which Gryf did nothing to dispel. In general, it seemed that there was a bit of a role reversal in this story, in that Tess ended up being the one who saved Gryf from the most problematic "villain" of all, himself.
I found most of the secondary characters in the story to be rather one-dimensional and unsubstantial. None really played strong roles beyond a few chapters, and even Stephen Elliot, the villain, was pretty weak. I also was not thrilled by the author's flimsy attempts at making him sympathetic by giving him a vaguely abusive past of his own. This didn't really even make much sense in the context of the story, and I'm afraid there's not much any author could do to make me feel sorry for a child molester. I do not consider myself to be an overly sensitive reader. I've read several books that have dealt with abuse issues, some of which have become favorites, but in all of them, no scene has ever unnerved and disconcerted me as much as the two scenes in this book dealing with the issue of child sex slavery, even though they were not terribly graphic. I think this was due to the scenes being played out in real-time instead of flashbacks, and more importantly, that absolutely nothing was done in this book to save the child who was being violated. That being said though, I am pleased to say that the story of Sammy, the abused little boy, is continued in the sequel to this book, The Shadow and the Star, where he, as the hero, is able to find some happiness and redemption. I was also extremely disappointed that Tess's abuse at Stephen's hands was not explored at all, and she was not given any believable outlet for her recovery from this. Even when Tess was having nightmares, she never discussed with Gryf what had happened to her during that time, nor did he ever ask about it. Instead Gryf actually started to sympathize with his cousin, Stephen, in the end, and even seemed to mourn him after he was gone in spite of all the heinous things Stephen had done, which was something completely unrelatable to me.
All in all, in spite of it being a dark and frustrating story at times, I found The Hidden Heart to be a worthwhile read. There was something about it that strangely compelled me to keep reading even in the face of my disillusionment, though I have a feeling that it had more to do with me eagerly awaiting some happy event for these two tortured souls than anything else. The narrative was quite simply downright depressing at times. I have only read two of Ms. Kinsale's books, but I sense that The Hidden Heart is probably not one of her strongest works. If you are new to her as an author, I wouldn't necessarily recommend starting with this book. As mentioned earlier, The Shadow and the Star is a sequel to The Hidden Heart, and I had actually read it first. Being a stickler for reading books in order, I initially regretted my decision to read the sequel first, but after having read both, I can honestly say that they can be enjoyed independently of each other. Gryf and Tess do appear in The Shadow and the Star playing fairly substantial secondary roles and giving readers a look at where they are about twenty years later, but I wouldn't say that there were any significant spoilers to The Hidden Heart contained in it. Also, in my opinion, The Shadow and the Star was the better of the two books, though still pretty intense. The bottom line is that readers who like novels with a dark, Gothic feel or an artfully nuanced writing style, may enjoy The Hidden Heart, but be forewarned that this book is no walk in the park and there is very little lightness contained within it's pages. My feeling is that most readers will either love it or hate it, but there may be the few, who like me, both loved and hated it at the same time.
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