I both dreaded and looked forward to Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets, dreaded because I dislike women’s fiction and looked forward to because the blurb offered gothic potential. In the end, the novel’s gothic and romance portions outweighed the women’s fic. I was one contentedly satiated reader at pages’ end. Be warned, there’s also first-person narration, but the narrator is engaging, funny, self-deprecating, intelligent, and as the hero notes, looks like Kate Winslet (I adore Winslet, ever since I saw her in Heavenly Creatures). Our narrator-heroine is San Francisco-based food writer and editor of the fictional magazine Egg and Hen, Olivia Shaw. When the novel opens, Olivia’s life has taken some spectacularly difficult, life-altering turns. She arrives in Hertfordshire’s Saint Ives Cross having recently learned she has inherited a crumbling estate, Rosemere Priory. She is mourning her mother, only six weeks gone, but she’s also learned that her mother kept her identity as Lady Caroline Shaw secret. The drippily unhappy heroine, the rain, the English countryside, the quaint village she arrives in, down to the country-accented friendly cab-driver, who drops her off at the local inn and pub, absorbed me from page one. I loved the premise of the family secrets, I loved the crumbling priory, I loved Olivia’s voice, and the notion of a heroine navigating a new place, culture, community, and her own new-found, strange identity.
To give you a sense of Olivia, I will quote, verbatim, one of my reading notes, “Except for the annoying, rapacious fiancé, Olivia would make a great feral spinster.” What I loved about O’Neal’s handling of Olivia’s characterization is a basis not in character growth, as in a young adult novel, but Olivia’s realizations and reconsiderations. Her mother’s loss and the revelation of her inheritance (with title!) precipitate life-changes, changes requiring bravery. I loved Olivia’s courage: she wasn’t faced with challenges so dear to WF (no Big C stories please). Olivia took time to think, organize (I loved her task-oriented whiteboard, including good-times with the love interest … more of his wonderfulness later), to consider, seek the advice of trustworthy people, and take action, not, as many romance characters do, resolve change. Olivia enacted it, step by step and with considered decision-making.
Olivia wasn’t suspicious, or paranoid, but a good reader of character. When, for example, she realized her relationship with dick-fiancé was a long-time-over, she broke off with him honestly and with class. Here’s an example of Olivia’s thought-process, in a phone conversation with dick-fiancé:
He was using the voice I’d come to know too well – the patient voice. There were times lately I didn’t even like this man, much less want to marry him. Many times. Sometimes I thought I’d never really loved him much at all.
Her honesty with herself was a joy to read, and her decisiveness. Grant turned out worse than she thought, but Olivia didn’t wallow in self-recrimination. Olivia’s journey is of a mature, thoughtful woman, who also possesses humility and humour.
Another thing I loved about Olivia was how she navigated her relationships, despite feeling unmoored in a new place, people, and identity. She nurtured the worthy ones and divested herself of the unhealthy. One of my favourites, other than with the hero, was Olivia’s relationship with food and her body. O’Neal’s Olivia loves to cook. She knows how to savour and break down flavours; she knows how to celebrate food. Olivia is aware of her early-Kate-Winslet body. When she takes the hero as her lover, there are fleeting moments of self-consciousness about her “squishy bits” and her six-year seniority; overall, however, Olivia celebrates the pleasures of touch as she does of taste. The love scenes, by most romance standards, are circumspect, but they are sensuous, sexy, and healthy for both partners. Really, some of the best I’ve read. As are the food descriptions …
And now we come to the people who surround Olivia and how well-drawn and compelling they are. They come from the far past in the form of her ancestry and what she learns about the secrets her mother kept: her grandmother Violet’s personal tragedy; her mother’s; the ghosts that haunt Rosemere Priory. They come from her recent past: her loving, close relationship with her marvelous artist-mother; the dick-fiancé, and her work colleagues. And they come from her strange, bittersweet new present: the man who accompanies her on her Rosemere Priory ruins’ walks and explorations, Samir Malakar, who becomes her lover with joy and humility; her friendship with Samir’s family, especially his father, Harshad, who knew her mother when she was Lady Caroline; his talented chef sister, Pavi, local restaurant owner, new friend, and introducer of marvelous flavours; and even Samir’s difficult, complex mother; the local shopkeepers, artisans, and bakers, the bringers of tea and pourers of ale. I can’t say I loved the estate-makeover hostess who aids Olivia, Jocasta Edwards, the “Restoration Diva” very much. I can see, however, how she makes the renovation aspect of the story easier to tell and move, so okay. Maybe it was a tad pat, but it worked.
As I write this post, I sip on a cup of chai latter, which I made, despite the summer heat, to honour how much I loved O’Neal’s romance between Olivia and roof-thatcher (as well as something else, but no spoilers) Samir Malakar. I will give you a small sampling of the moment they knew they were linked (it’s lovely, worthy of a Jane Eyre echo): “Something earthy and green and fertile bloomed between us, twining like the vines through the windows of Rosemere Priory.” The sense of something new, fertile and green, like a new shoot, and its connection to the past, the house, is beautiful and memorable. Samir and Olivia’s relationship is simple, loving, and comfortable. It’s not simplistic: they have to navigate the age difference (doesn’t matter, love is love), Samir’s reticence about class and colour (doesn’t matter, love is love), and the old-fashioned, romance hesitation that they’ve both been hurt by their past, failed relationships (doesn’t matter post-growing-pains because they’re so gentle and honest with each other). Here’s a snippet to lure you to read this O’Neal’s Art Of Inheriting Secrets:
” … the fact remains that our social classes are vastly different.”
“Don’t,” I said, and to emphasize my point, I covered his mouth with my fingers. “Let’s just be us. Let it be.” I took my hand away. “Okay?”
He captured my fingers. “We’re tired. Let’s go to sleep, shall we?”
“Side by side?”
O’Neal has been writing a long time. I’m so glad I have her romances in the TBR, her historical romances and contemporaries and all this new stuff she’s writing. To conclude, my final reader-bait: what does Samir say to Olivia when she wavers on restoring her ancestral home? ” ‘That isn’t who you are. You’re afraid. And you cannot have a life of great meaning if you make decisions out of fear.’ ” I loved that the HEA, as Victor Frankl, urges us to do, is to find happiness as a subsidiary of finding meaning. I’m very glad O’Neal couched this truth in a romance between two equal, worthy people. With Miss Austen, we say that Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets is proof “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Barbara O’Neal’s The Art Of Inheriting Secrets is published by Lake Union Publishing. It was released on July 17th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from Lake Union Publishing, via Netgalley.