Narrated by Tim Campbell
This latest instalment in Cynthia Wright’s long-running Rakes and Rebels series is the sequel to Smuggler’s Moon, which I reviewed a couple of years back. Even though it’s part of a series, The Secret of Love can be listened to as a stand-alone novel, because while some characters from other books in the series appear in this one, they have secondary roles to play and the storyline is self-contained, so there is no real need to have read or listened to any of the other instalments.
At the end of Smuggler’s Moon, fourteen year-old Lady Isabella – Izzie – Trevarre told her best friend that she had met the man she was going to marry. That man was Gabriel St. Briac, a handsome young Frenchman and associate of her brother Sebastian’s from the brief time he made his living as a smuggler. Moving on six years, we find Isabella in London at the salon of the famous artist, Madame Vigée-Lebrun, who recognised Izzie’s considerable artistic talent and agreed to be her mentor. Izzie is determined not to end up trapped in a loveless marriage like her mother and has set her sights instead on making her way in the world as an artist.
Completely out of the blue one day, Gabriel St. Briac – who has gone from merely ‘handsome’ to devastating in the intervening years – arrives at the studio carrying a family treasure, a miniature portrait of King François I, believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci in his later years. This portrait is of immense value to the St. Briac family, and he is determined to prevent its being appropriated by those working for Napoléon, who is looting treasures from France and all over Europe to house in his museum at the Palais du Louvre. He asks Madame if she will hide the painting for him, but she is about to return to Paris, so Izzie – whom Gabriel hadn’t recognised at first – suggests he asks Sebastian instead. A former smuggler must have plenty of secret hidey-holes and she is sure her brother will want to help his friend. Gabriel thanks her for the suggestion and leaves for Cornwall, having no idea of the feelings his visit has stirred up in Izzie, who had thought she was over her girlish infatuation with him.
Four years later, and Izzie spends most of her days in her cottage-cum-studio on Sebastian’s Cornwall estate. In the intervening years, she has lost her habit of comfort eating and gained one of restlessness; instead of eating when she’s upset, she now finds she needs to take long walks instead, which has, of course, had a beneficial effect on her figure. (Only in romance novels…) Izzie is out walking when she glimpses an oddly familiar figure on one of the paths and on getting closer, recognises the man as her brother George, the Marquess of Caverley. In the previous book, we learned that George had run through the family fortune and fled England to avoid his many creditors, leaving Sebastian with a dilapidated estate and a mountain of debt. Even so, Izzie is delighted to see George, recalling the loving brother of her childhood who was her only real friend when her parents were too busy being miserable together to bother about her. She begs him to come to Trevarre Hall to see the rest of the family, but even though he says he wants to make amends and reconcile with Sebastian, George is reluctant to go.
Izzie gets another surprise later that evening, when a misunderstanding sees her bursting into the bedchamber occupied by a newly-arrived, half-dressed Gabriel St. Briac, who has come to Cornwall to retrieve his portrait. Once more, he fails to recognise her, surprised to discover this lovely young woman is the same one he met in Madame Lebrun’s studio –and equally unable to deny the sudden spark of attraction he feels toward her.
When Sebastian takes Gabriel to the hiding place next day, the portrait is missing – and Izzie has a pretty good idea of who has taken it. Gabriel is determined to get his painting back, and plans to return immediately to France, believing that perhaps it has been stolen by Napoleon’s art thieves after all. Keeping her suspicions to herself but wanting to help, Izzie stows away on his ship – but when they arrive in Roscoff in Brittany, the smarmy Lord Linton, an English customs agent with a grudge against Sebastian, is not far behind them, spreading the claim that Izzie has been kidnapped.
Izzie and Gabriel must elude Lynton and avoid raising the suspicions of Napoléon’s agents as they search for the painting, and their enforced proximity sees the attraction Gabriel had begun to feel in Cornwall growing stronger, and all Izzie’s old yearnings for him returning full-force. There’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them as they tip-toe around each other; he because he thinks his lack of nobility means he’s not good enough for her; she because she has concealed the identity of the thief and worries he will hate her when he finds out the truth – but a visit to the St. Briac family home during which Gabriel’s brother seems intent on seducing Izzie finally makes Gabriel come to his senses and realise what matters and what doesn’t.
The Secret of Love is an entertaining enough listen, but I had a number of issues with the story and writing that prevent me from rating it more highly. For instance, we’re told that Izzie is making her way as an artist, but not once does she ever appear to have been commissioned to paint anything. And at the age of twenty four (after a year of studying renaissance artists) she’s an expert on da Vinci and his painting techniques, and is able to use her knowledge to make a copy of the portrait so precise that nobody detects it’s a forgery. I was not particularly taken with the idea that Gabriel didn’t really notice Izzie until she’d lost a bit of weight, and in some places the writing was a little creaky and the prose veered towards the purple.
Once again, the narration by Tim Campbell produced mixed reactions. I’ve reviewed him a few times now, and each time I listen to him, I hope that maybe he has managed to correct the numerous mispronunciations that have marred the other performances of his I’ve listened to. Sadly, he hasn’t – and I’m going to point to my other reviews (here, here and here) rather than go over the same ground, because I could lift paragraphs from those reviews verbatim to describe the repeated errors. But I can’t not mention the couple that made me wince this time round; the word “quay” is pronounced “key”, not “kway”, and while “you like tom-ay-to and I like tom-ah- to”, we ALL say “pot-ay-to” and not “pot-ah-to”!
With that said though, Mr. Campbell redeems himself somewhat by virtue of the fact that his French accent is excellent. In fact, his pronunciation of the French-accented English is often better than of the English-accented English (if that makes sense!) and his portrayal of Gabriel is perfect. There is absolutely no question that this is an intelligent, confident and sexy man of action who commands attention and gets things done.
Mr. Campbell is also extremely good at voicing female characters; in fact, I’d put him right up there with Alex Wyndham in his ability to create suitably feminine characterisations without exaggeration or resorting to falsetto. Every single character in the story is clearly differentiated and portrayed according to age, station and nationality – he is even able to pull off a few convincing West Country accents – and there is no doubting his skill as a vocal actor when it comes to injecting the right degree of emotion into any given piece of narrative or dialogue. Tim Campbell is recording more and more historical romance, and, as I’m fond of saying, the genre needs more good male narrators. And he IS good. But he’d be an A-grade narrator if he would just eradicate the pronunciation issues I’ve mentioned. I’m sure he’s capable of it – given what he has done here with French and regional English accents, I can’t imagine he’d find it difficult. But his obvious talent makes the problem all the more frustrating, and while I can see myself listening to him again in future, I won’t stop nagging and hoping he will fix it.
The Secret of Love is an audiobook I can only recommend with reservations about both narration and story. I found it a bit too easy to put down, but on the upside, that made it the ideal audio for listening to while I was pottering about doing other things. And Tim Campbell’s sexy French hero is a definite plus, even though other aspects of his performance are problematic.
Book Content: C+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in, but at the tame end
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Cynthia Challed
The Secret of Love was provided to AudioGals by Cynthia Challed for a review.