The Secret Bride
by Diane Haeger
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
The Secret Bride / 978-0-451-22313-5
Here's an excerpt from the opening pages of "Secret Bride". To set the stage, children Mary and Henry have just learned that their brother Arthur is dead. Relative adult (at age 18) Charles Brandon has made an inappropriate smirk as to the likelihood of the widow Katherine being pregnant:
"Oh come now," Charles remarked, seeing Mary's expression. "We only hope to put a bit of a brave face on a horrid tragedy."
"And how difficult for you is that?" she asked tautly, sounding much older than her years. "Now your dearest friend will next be king. Arthur barely knew you, and what he knew he did not much like. But my brother Henry adores you. It seems to me great fortune for you in the tragedy of another."
"Mary!" Henry charged. "I understand you are upset - we all are. But you really must apologize for such words."
"I will not," she stubbornly declared, tipping up her chin with a defiance like his own, which ran so thickly through her blood that she could not have tamed it. "Charles is arrogant and selfish and I do not like him."
"Yet I do. And it is I whose command you shall be made to follow soon enough."
"You can command my compliance, Henry, but never my heart!"
I feel that this passage neatly sums up all the problems with this book and with Haeger's writing. As such:
1. Haeger's characters all sound the same. Read that passage again. Can you tell that Mary is 8 years old? Can you tell that Charles Brandon is 18 years old? Can you see a difference between Mary a princess of the blood, and Brandon a disenfranchised orphan dependent upon the goodwill of the royal family? Is there a difference in speech between Henry the favored price and new heir, and Mary a marriage pawn and relatively powerless princess? Put another way, if Haeger removed all names and pronouns from the passage, could you tell who was speaking which part? I cannot.
2. Haeger's characters do not sound human. "Arthur barely knew you, and what he knew he did not much like." It's important to talk like this when providing plot exposition to an invisible reader hovering over the room, but in an actual conversation it would not be necessary to reiterate a well-known fact among the conversation participants that Arthur and Charles were strangers and did not much care for each other. In Haeger's narrative, everyone speaks as if there's a 21st century observer looking over their shoulder.
3. Haeger's characters do not act within the narrative. Arthur, older brother of Mary and Henry, has just died. These young children have been reminded suddenly and sharply of their own mortality. Furthermore, Henry is now heir to the throne, with all the responsibilities, tutoring, and "un-fun" stuff that being an heir entails. Their world has forever been changed: divided between Before-Arthur's-Death and After-Arthur's-Death. Instead of reacting realistically to these sudden, jarring, terrifying changes, the children are posturing and silly, with Mary raising her chin in youthful defiance, "sounding older" than her eight years, and carefully hashing out the bounds of Henry's regal power over her heart and actions. There are no tears, no shocked silence, no rages against the heartless god that allowed a brother to die and a royal bloodline to be threatened, nothing that we would expect of actual humans. Why should there be? There's a narrative to get on with!
4. Haeger's characters have read novel's dust jacket description. There's really no other explanation for this dialogue than that. Why does Mary defiantly insist that Henry can't control her heart? He hasn't suggested that he even wants to! He's told her to behave herself to Brandon regardless of her feelings in the matter; her rejoinder that her heart is still her own is irrelevant and begs a response of, "Yeah, that's why I didn't order you to LIKE him." The only context in which this conversation makes sense is if it is read as a wink-and-a-nod to the reader - "Remember the premise of this book? Mary is going to follow her own heart! The heart that Henry can't control!" This removal from the narrative is distracting and simply awful writing. We see this repeatedly in Charles Brandon's suicidally rude treatment of Mary: an orphan dependent upon the good graces of King Henry does not openly mock his daughter, especially in a barely established court that is deeply paranoid about being seen as legitimate. However, Charles Brandon the Character realizes that he's in a romance novel and that the romance will be more interesting if Mary hates him in a sexual tension sort of way.
I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that the book is just terrible. These literary sins occur on every page and the narrative is distractingly bad. In the end, I couldn't resell the book fast enough.
~ Ana Mardoll
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