The story of Lady Angeline Dudley has been one Balogh fans were eager for. Unfortunately, it fails to engage. This is the first Mary Balogh title I haven’t read cover to cover in a single sitting. This is a stay-up-to-five-am author for me and yet I failed to finish The Secret Mistress. After two attempts I am setting it aside on page 130. Mary Balogh’s books are often deeply rewarding for a patient reader, with unexpected twists coming from the smallest of moments. Unfortunately, I never emotionally engaged with bright fragile butterfly Angeline or her stiffly proper flame, Edward. I am sure those small moments were coming, but I felt I was slogging instead of running toward them.
When we meet Angeline she’s an absolute teenager. Impulsive, giddy and wild, she is finally going to meet her adored brothers after years at school. I have no idea (nor will the reader) why Angeline so adores her brothers unless it is the love of the abandoned child for the deadbeat parent. Her brothers haven’t bothered with her in years, sending her back to school after she is orphaned and taking their holidays elsewhere. Angeline worships them, yet knows she wants to marry someone completely unlike them. Meeting both Edward and one of her brother’s friends in the public room of an inn, she decides on the spot that only Edward will do. Love at first sight. First eligible man she’s ever seen. It’s almost painful, watching this neglected girl throw herself at a dream of a man. She, who is not valued, is going to woo this man. I want to stop her, not cheer for her.
Edward is all about not being his brother and doing right by the family and blah blah blah. He whines about wanting to marry his girlfriend, but also checks out Angeline from the corner of his eye. This isn’t a case of her incandescent joy illuminating hidden corners of his life – this is him viewing her with some distaste. You don’t want him to have her, he doesn’t deserve to have someone like her handed to him. While the conversation is as delightful as any Balogh has written, there is a fundamental flaw in the couple the reader cannot overcome. Even knowing (based on later books) that Edward will value Angeline, will see her worth, you can’t support events as they unfold. Making matters even more complex, Angeline is perfectly happy flirting with her brother’s friend after he realizes his public room antics were inappropriate. Angeline doesn’t care that he would still treat her that way if not for the discovery of her social status, she sees these predatory men as harmless and entertaining. She is so painfully young.
It’s possible, probably even likely, that Balogh resolves most (or all) of these issues by the close of The Secret Mistress but I couldn’t spend any more time watching Angeline beg people to want her. I couldn’t tolerate Edward’s displeasure at having to assume the responsibility he appears to have wanted, or his treatment of both the women in his life. I think I would have adored The Secret Mistress if Angeline had stood up at her second meeting of Edward and brushed him off like the mistake he appears to be at that point. Instead her girlish infatuation becomes determination, and my concern for her surpassed my enjoyment.