Secrets of the Heart (Patti Shenberger)

4 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
The book starts with arguably its most controversial plot line — I don’t want to give it away for everyone (spoilers below), but let’s just say it’s a breakup that’s quite dramatic and also a bit heartbreaking.  Despite that (I’m not usually a fan of my escapist fiction starting with such heady drama), it was a thoroughly interesting and engrossing read.  Ten years pass between the initial breakup and the current action, and it’s quite obvious that old memories and emotions flavor everything that happens between our main characters.  Further, there are additional complications in that he’s a prince (yes, really) and she’s a cardiac surgeon used to having her own way.  Though I think there were some missed opportunities (in that this really should probably have been a slightly longer novel so that there was time to address everything brought up) and the dialogue is sometimes a little stilted (more on this below), overall, it was a very well done novel that kept me interested and invested in both of the main characters and their journey towards one another.

Greater Detail:
The prologue sets up the most difficult part of the book for me — our two main characters have been living together (and studying together, both dreaming of becoming famous doctors) for three years.  Isabelle comes home with some exciting news, but before she’s able to share, Nicholas basically (rather abruptly) ends their relationship and disappears. Again, I don’t want to give it away completely (unless you need to know, in which case spoilers are in spoiler section below) but it’s a loaded scene.  It’s well-written, but loaded… and the way the break-up happens, you almost start off not liking Nicholas very much.

Ten years pass, and we find out that Nicholas is really the prince and heir to a small island nation (something he hid from Isabelle), that his father is sick, and that he has chosen Isabelle (now a very established surgeon with bright prospects) to care for and treat his father. Nicholas is very willing to throw around his position and his money (in the form of donations) as well as a few threats (nothing bad, more cute “me Tarzan, you Jane” stuff) to get his way… and before we know it, hero and heroine are reunited, giving them lots of excuses to interact with each other and get to know each other all over again.

There are a lot of great things happening in this book — both of our protagonists are interesting, likeable, and independent.  Though the breakup clearly affected both of them, they’ve both (in their own ways) gotten over it, if not each other.  Isabelle is a strong woman who’s never forgotten Nicholas, or the pain of their breakup, but has gone on to carve out a successful career for herself, and Nicholas, similarly, has taken on a host of familial responsibilities and duties, though it wouldn’t have been perhaps his initial choice.  Since they are two characters with a history, there is quite a bit of reflection on both their parts as they reminisce privately about what could’ve/might’ve been.

That said… there are some missed opportunities in this book as well.  Though the first half is set up beautifully, I did feel as though a couple of the ending fights/resolutions were a little rushed, both between the two main characters as well as with the side characters (there’s the charming King Phillippe who is a little underutilized, and the playboy Prince Aidan who I would have liked to see more of, and who was interesting enough that he could’ve been more developed).  Also, the dialogue often feels a little stilted and doesn’t always add much to the scenes (I think some of it may be stilted on purpose, since Nicholas has a more stoic/formality-loving personality, but sometimes, it just falls flat).

Still, these aren’t deal breakers in what is otherwise a very well-written, fun read.  I had planned to read it over a few days, but kept coming back to it, wanting to know how things would resolve.

Spoilers:
So the thing that makes the opening scene so loaded is not just that they break up, but that Isabelle has a miscarriage. It’s a really well written, strong scene, but I feel as though such a well written scene deserves more follow-through… I kept waiting for this issue to come up, and though it does get addressed (near the very end), I feel like it was addressed too quickly and easily.  Something that has that much emotional pull and weight I think needed to be a conversation, several conversations, and/or have more impact on the finale… which it didn’t.  Instead, other, new complications are introduced and addressed instead.  Also, I include it here as a spoiler because I know that for some people, this is a loaded, emotional topic, and perhaps having it here at all is a deal breaker.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
I’m a little out of date in terms of more recent contemporary romance offerings. This is certainly as interesting as your standard Nora Roberts (though again, I found the dialogue a little weaker; Robert’s characters tend to verbally spar a bit more effectively) and has a healthy dose of medical side-plot,  which of course reminds me of Betty Neels (who, though she passed away a few years ago, wrote 150+ contemporary romances that always featured at least a doctor or nurse in the lead).  What I liked about this is that the medical information isn’t overwhelming, and the female lead is stronger (whereas in the Betty Neels books, often it’s the male who’s the dominant doctor) and there’s a nice balance of sensuality (helped by the characters’ shared history.  It reminds me a bit of Again, That Magic by Lisa Kleypas, which also had the young lovers who are reunited after a decade, except there the class warfare is between an earl’s daughter and a former servant (since that was a historical romance) and here you have an actual prince and a surgeon.

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