The Secret Pearl
by Mary Balogh, historical (2005, reissue)
Dell, $6.99, ISBN 0-440-24297-5

The Secret Pearl is considered a classic among card-carrying Very Serious Romance Readers, and no, it is not because it is one of those traditional Regency romances that let readers know that lovers don't just hold hands and exchange witty banters in the bedroom - they actually take off their clothes and have sex, oh the horror. Although, come to think of it, perhaps we can blame this book and its explicit raunchy sentences like "he released into her" for causing traditional Regency romance readers to realize that they have read a sex scene and they enjoy it, so there they go, signing up for Stephanie Laurens' fan club and causing the demise of the "No sex please, we're Anglophiles!" subgenre. I hope Mary Balogh sleeps easy at night, knowing what she has done to the romance genre.

Much has been said about how this book has broken conventions, but it is very likely that a reader today will pick up this book and wonder what the fuss is about. Our heroine, Isabella Fleur Bradshaw, is a hooker but hey, she is a virgin until she loses it to her first customer, our hero Adam Kent, the Duke of Raybourne. In other words, this is another story where a tragic heroine is forced to become a prostitute and ends up finding bliss with her one and only customer, so this isn't that much of a groundbreaking story as it was at the time it was published back in 1991. I know, it is funny how prior to this book we have rape romances being read by all and sundry but the idea of a heroine being a prostitute still shocked some readers of the genre, but bear with me. We all have our quirks. Still, if we are to look at this book by today's standards, The Secret Pearl isn't particularly controversial. It is, in fact, almost ordinary, until you actually read the story and come across some exquisite writing like this:

"And yet I have taken this night for myself," he said. "It is a selfishness and a moral wrong, Fleur, or so your curate friend would say." He kissed her briefly. "But I don't want to talk. I want to love you one more time. I wanted you to know, though, that I will remain faithful to you and will always think of you as my wife."

"A piece of eternity," she said, touching his lips with her fingertips. "It had been wonderful beyond words. I would not exchange it for ten years added to my lifespan, Adam. And then there is still a little of it left."

Don't worry, Fleur doesn't remain a prostitute throughout this story, because that will be really controversial. She soon becomes the governess to Adam's daughter. She is on the run, however, and yes, she uses her middle name as her "street name" in the process. Don't blame Fleur - thinking is not her forté. When her past catches up with her, she will do what a Mary Balogh heroine does best - spreads her hands as if she's a walking crucifix and plays the martyr. Seriously, Fleur irritates me at times in this story because she's such a Mary Sue heroine. Everyone she encounters loves her, except for the bad guy, of course, and there are many times in this story when she could have seized a chance at being happy, only she doesn't and won't because it is more fashionable to play the wounded martyr.

Adam, on the other hand, ah, now that is a man that could give my harem of Carla Kelly's heroes a run for their money. He's so sweet, so fine, and so romantic while bearing the mantle of the walking wounded that I actually find myself moved to tears a few times in this story when he declares his love to Fleur. In a way, he is a bit of a martyr himself, but unlike Fleur, he doesn't cling to his martyrdom like a sadistic twit hoping for a stigmata, instead he moves mountains for Fleur. Then again, isn't this the same old story for the genre? Strong hero comes to the rescue, while a "likable" heroine refuses to help herself because she's too "virtuous" to impose on other people?

Some very beautiful writing and heartbreakingly romantic scene, a hero to die for... and a heroine who gets on my nerves with her persistent martyrdom. Oh well, I can't have everything, I suppose.

Rating: 85

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