This is a historical romance adventure with a mystery to solve and a touch of the paranormal, and while there are parts of the book that drove me scatty (more on that soon), I really did love the lead characters (In short, they’re ADORABLE!).
Desmond Harrison, the son of a criminal banished to a penal colony, has ‘made good.’ The vicar in his Dorset village tutored him and introduced him to his mentor, Professor Gordon. As the book opens, we see Desmond in London attending as many scientific lectures as he can while keeping up with his work on optical lenses for Professor Gordon and his work at the optical shop.
It is at one of these lectures that he meets Thisbe Moreland. She is a scientist herself, but her feelings towards Desmond are more ~lusty~ and from the beginning they share an adoring and equitable relationship. He never talks down to her because she’s a woman and she never talks down to him because he is working class. This familiar hurdle in historical romance presented by their different stations in life is soon eclipsed by the saga of Annie Blue’s Eye.
So what’s this eye about? Professor Gordon fell out of favour with the scientific community some years previously when he decided that ghosts were real. He is now funded by the dubious Mr. Wallace who is hell-bent on getting and using the Eye. This Eye would allow him to not only see ghosts, but to bring the dead back to life. Yup, it takes a turn for the HUH pretty quickly. And it is the EYE that forms the source of all the conflict in this novel.
The tale of who revealed what to whom is rather convoluted. Simply put, through a series of mishaps based on omissions, we eventually reach the point where Desmond knows that Thisbe is the granddaughter of the Dowager Duchess, who is currently in possession of the Eye. Thisbe learns that Desmond’s mentor will do anything it takes to get the Eye. This, unsurprisingly, puts a spanner in the works of their courtship.
You see where this is going?
As the lies of omission were told, I very nearly DNFed this book. I could see the trainwreck coming and I could not bring myself to care. I am glad that I continued though because the characters did not react as I imagined they would. It was gratifying to see their actions as rounded, full characters.
There is much to enjoy in this novel. Thisbe and Desmond save each other repeatedly and while there is a bit of handwringing and proposed martyrdom, the two characters remain likeable and interesting throughout. Thisbe is independent in thought, word, and deed. The various ‘sins’ they commit – be it deceit or omission of key info – are committed by both parties.
A bigger structural issue is the unhappy union of science and spiritualism. I realise science, and specifically the scientific method, has changed a great deal since the 1800s, but I found it difficult to believe that both Thisbe and Desmond choose to mash their scientific views together with their new spiritualist ones. The paranormal elements of this book aren’t ever accepted by the character’s families. This is particularly jarring because Thisbe’s family seems to specialise in being permissive. They accept her independence, academic studies, ‘outlandish’ ideas and so much more. But these dreams that she has, which are supernatural premonitions (?), are never accepted as such. Instead, when she discusses her dreams with her father, he analyses them as though they are her subconscious mind’s attempt to work through the stresses of her waking hours. In a family who accept all things, for Thisbe’s ‘dreams’ not to be seen as ‘real’ makes it difficult to buy the paranormal parts of this story. And the paranormal stuff is what underpins the conflict in the novel, so without the paranormal stuff being taken seriously, the conflict is very thin.
Frankly, there is not enough plot to justify the 432 pages of which this book consists. So prepare for a marathon. That the characters will surprise you and that you will have a genuine mystery to solve goes some way to easing the exertion required. If this book were a car, it would run, but a salad spinner would stand in for the carburetor and the boot would be stuffed with the many bags of donations you’ve been meaning to drop off at the goodwill.