I was interested in this when I saw it on NetGalley because it looked like it would be an intriguing story about art and creativity and because I’m a Hamlet nerd so anything referencing Ophelia is going to catch my eye. That said, I don’t think I entirely picked up on the fact that it was historical (though I’m not sure how I missed that) — and I also somehow missed noticing that it’s romance, which is … not so much my thing.
The historical aspects of the book aren’t exactly anything to write home about: while they’re well-researched, there’s nothing all that innovative about a country girl coming to London to be a maid for the first time, and discovering a slightly less-than-respectable world she never knew existed. The fact that it’s the pre-Raphaelite art world isn’t something I’ve come across all that much, though, so at least that gave it some originality.
Plus, it was nice to see a glimpse of familiar historical people like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (I actually first came across the Rossettis via Hide Me Among The Graves by Tim Powers and then got really into Christian Rossetti’s poetry for a while). They weren’t major characters, which I think helped the believability a bit: having historical figures in the background helped set the scene, but didn’t require the suspension of disbelief that featuring them more prominently would.
The romance aspect is, again, not unpredictable — she works as a muse/model for an artist and they fall in love but it’s complicated because of social status and money and so on, and I won’t give any spoilers but things get very complicated. I’m not a romance fan, as anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know, so probably the best I can say about that is that it wasn’t too soppy and didn’t dominate the story — Bennett kept things tasteful and reasonably PG.
And the characters, too, are okay. They’re not astounding. There’s no charater that really stuck out to me, although I would have liked to see more of Kitty. I liked that the relationship between Mary and her fellow maid Annie was allowed to develop from animosity into friendship, and that they got to have that friendship.
Mary’s a very pure-hearted good person who helps others out of the kindness of her heart and isn’t very good at being a servant because she’s too imaginative and thoughtful, which is all admirable and all that, but it doesn’t make her hugely interesting. Honestly, I sort of wished the romance would go in a slightly more risque direction just so that she’d do something unexpected for once.
I guess the impression my review must be giving is that this book was quite middling for me. There was nothing exactly WRONG with it (except some formatting issues with the ARC that now and again made it difficult for me to follow, because I didn’t realise there’d been a chapter break or whatever). The characters were fine, the romance was fine, the historical stuff was well-researched but didn’t open my eyes to anything I haven’t thought about or read before. It just didn’t have the spark it needed to make me feel anything more than neutral towards it, you know?
In this instance, I think it really is personal taste and also that I’m possibly a bit older than the target audience, for whom some of what it depicts might be new and might be more innovative (I have read a lot of books, after all). But I don’t think I can honestly give it more than three stars, and if I weren’t feeling in a generous mood, I might give it fewer.