The Maid of Milan by Beverley Eikli

Cover_MaidOfMilan

Adelaide Leeson wants to prove herself worthy of her husband, a man of noble aspirations who married her when she was at her lowest ebb.

Lord Tristan Leeson is a model of diplomacy and self-control, even curbing the fiery impulses of his youth to preserve the calm relations deemed essential by his mother-in-law to preserve his wife s health.

A visit from his boyhood friend, feted poet Lord James Dewhurst, author of the sensational Maid of Milan, persuades Tristan that leaving the countryside behind for a London season will be in everyone’s interests.

But as Tristan’s political career rises, and Adelaide revels in society’s adulation, the secrets of the past are uncovered. And there’s a high price to pay for a life of deception.

Rating: C

At the age of seventeen, Adelaide Henley – beautiful, vivacious and determined to sample all the delights life had to offer – had an affair with an older, unhappily married man while living in Milan with her mother and diplomat father.

When Adelaide and her lover were discovered, they were swiftly parted and she was taken back to England utterly distraught, often to the detriment of her physical health. In order to explain Adelaide’s lack of virginity to a potential suitor, her overbearing mother concocted a story. On their voyage back to England, their ship had been set upon by pirates and brigands and Adelaide had been raped, a fact which not only explained Adelaide’s “impure” state, but also accounted for her wariness of men, and the fragile state of her emotions and her health.

When the story opens, Adelaide has been married to Tristan, Lord Leeson for the past three years. A fairly young widower, he had fallen in love at first sight, and has been a kind, considerate and attentive husband, usually taking his cue from her mother as to the state of her health and determined not to press his physical attentions upon her any more than is necessary. It’s difficult for him, of course, for his wife is young and beautiful, but he exercises restraint during their weekly conjugal activities so as not to overtax her strength. Over the course of the past year or so, however, Adelaide has realised not only that she has fallen in love with her husband, but that she desires him and wants to be more of a wife to him – both in the bedroom and out of it. But Mrs Henley has convinced her that, should she give her husband the slightest hint as to her sinfully passionate nature, he will become suspicious and wonder at the difference between the meek, ailing girl he married and the suddenly enthusiastic sexual partner in his bed.

Adelaide allows her mother’s blandishments and fears to continue to influence her – until finally she decides it’s time for her to take back control of her life, and show her husband the truth of her feelings for him.
Adding to Adelaide’s confusion is the sudden reappearance of Lord James Dewhurst, her former lover, who is now a celebrated author. Although she is absolutely steadfast in her love for Tristan and wants nothing more to do with James, matters are complicated by the fact that James is one of Tristan’s oldest friends. Having decided that Adelaide is finally well enough for him to take his seat in the Lords and embark on the political career he wants, Tristan has removed to London for the Season, and asks James if he will mind escorting Adelaide to the odd function here and there, when Tristan is unable to attend. Although James is newly betrothed, he is still in love with Adelaide and is naturally only too eager to agree.

Adelaide becomes the toast of the town, and finally feels like herself again. Tristan is enchanted by her all over again, and their physical relationship only gets better as Adelaide proves herself to be an eager participant in their lovemaking. But in the meantime, Adelaide’s – or rather, her mother’s – lies begin to spin out of control, and when she receives an anonymous missive insisting “I know all”, it knocks her back completely. Adelaide suffers a relapse brought on by guilt and an excess of anxiety rather than, as her mother insists, too much gaiety and enthusiastic sex!

The novel is quite complex, with a number of different threads running alongside the story of Tristan and Adelaide’s troubled marriage; such as the relationship between James and his fiancée, the doubts sewn by Tristan’s meddlesome former mistress and the rivalry between James and another writer.

While there were elements I found rather frustrating – most notably Adelaide’s inability to stand up to her mother, and Tristan’s continual insistence on James squiring Addy around when he wasn’t available – I found myself really drawn into the story, which was quite the page-turner. I reviewed an earlier book by this author (A Little Deception) and remember a similar experience – the story was quite compelling even though I did have a few issues with certain areas of the plot and characterisation. I also remember that the villain in that story was an especially well-drawn and forceful character. In this book, there isn’t a villain in quite the same mode – Mrs Henley is selfish and self-righteous, and James is selfish and egotistical – but Mrs Henley’s machinations (both the ones stated explicitly and those I suspected) kept me on tenterhooks, wondering what on earth she was going to attempt next, and how poor Adelaide – and poor Tristan, who seemed to me as much of a victim in this as his wife – were going to be able to cope with the next setback or revelation.

Then, at about two-thirds of the way book, something happened which, I confess, I found very distasteful. It’s difficult to say too much without spoilers; suffice to say it’s something which I am sure that many readers will find unpalatable. In fact, I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face when I read it, and I’m afraid I found it impossible to recapture my earlier enthusiasm for the novel. Perhaps a metaphorical slap is what Ms Eikli intended. In fact, I think that Adelaide is acting more or less in character, and, given the circumstances into which she has been forced time and time again, what she does may not be all that unlikely. But that still didn’t make it easy to regain any sympathy for her, and in fact, it was another day or so before I could bring myself to finish the book.

The author does make it clear that Adelaide’s actions have devastating consequences and that she is almost destroyed by what happened. She knows she does not deserve Tristan’s love or his forgiveness and fully expects and intends to spend the rest of her life alone. But at its heart, The Maid of Milan is a romance, and Adelaide cannot be left to atone for her mistakes by losing the man she loves forever.

Because of the serious reservation I’ve expressed above about the plot, this proved a very difficult book to rate. I had confidently expected to be writing a 4 or 4.5 star review, but now find myself unable to rate it so highly. Reviewing is a very subjective thing, of course, and I have to admit that, had I not been reviewing this book for a blog tour (and had I not previously enjoyed another of Ms Eikli’s books) I may not have finished it.

But I recognise that not everyone has my tastes, and that to base my entire review on one particular plot point is not completely fair, because the book has much to recommend it. The storyline itself is quite compelling in the early stages, as the reader witnesses Adelaide’s gradual re-awakening and her struggles to break free of her mother’s lies and schemes. Then there is Tristan, who is an absolute sweetie and only wants to do the best for his wife. There are numerous secondary characters and plotlines which make the whole thing very intriguing as misunderstandings and plot twists pile on top of one another, making the reader wonder how on earth these two people who really do love each other are ever going to make a life together.

As a consequence, I can’t help feeling that the incident to which I’ve alluded was unnecessary. Tristan and Adelaide already have so many problems to surmount; so many secrets and lies to untangle that this event felt like death-knell to their relationship. I didn’t see how they could recover from it, and also felt that Tristan blamed himself far too much for the turn of events, so that when he eventually asks for forgiveness from Adelaide, I wanted to howl that she should be the one doing the grovelling.

In conclusion, all I can say is that The Maid of Milan is certainly not your run-of-the-mill historical romance, and that if you’re looking for something different, it may well be the book for you. The story is quite gripping and well written, and I thought the author did an excellent job in showing the emotional consequences of keeping so many secrets. But on a purely personal level, I was unable to get past my dislike of that one particular plot point I’ve mentioned, and am sorry to say that it did spoil my enjoyment of the book overall.

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