Silent Melody by Mary Balogh
(Berkley, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-15862-4

Sequel to "Heartless"

Lady Emily Marlowe has been deaf since the age of four, when she nearly died from an unnamed fever; since the age of fourteen, she has lived at Bowden Abbey with her sister Anna and Anna's husband, the Duke of Harndon. While at Bowden, she has met, befriended and fallen in love with the Duke's only surviving brother, Ashley Kendrick. A restless young man who is traveling the road to ruin out of sheer boredom, Ashley is saved when the Duke gives him permission to travel to India to try to make his fortune. Emily is devastated.

Seven years later, Ashley comes home. He has married and become a father in the interim -- and though he will not admit it, he has sojourned in hell. Emily, hungry for a life of her own, is on the verge of accepting a marriage proposal from Lord Powell, one of the suitors her brother-in-law the Duke has found for her. When she sees Ashley again, her long-buried feelings for him surge to the surface once more, bringing unwelcome longing in their wake and casting her future into doubt. She wishes that Ashley had not returned.

One of the problems with sequels is that characters from the previous novel or novels are often introduced for no better reason than to let the reader know what happened to them. In this book, characters from the previous novel serve as key secondary players in the drama that unfolds between Ashley and Emily. Both Ashley and Emily are deeply connected to the family headed by Luke, Duke of Harndon; there is no way this story could have been told without that family.

Before starting Silent Melody, I was concerned that Emily's deafness would be handled clumsily. Would she be excessively noble, like a character in a bad TV movie? Or would her deafness turn out to be a mere plot device, turning on when needed and off when in the way? In the hands of a less inventive writer, either of these things was likely.

Mary Balogh continually delights me with her ability to perform sleight-of-hand with plots, making the reader think the story is traveling down the same old path, only to end up at an entirely fresh destination. Undistracted by noise, untrammeled by conventional expectations, Emily is free to develop her profound sensitivity to the natural world even as she suffers the indignity of being thought incapable of most things because she cannot do one thing. We see both the strange benefits and understandable deficits of Emily's deafness, flowing from one to the other and back again, and we come to sense the indescribable otherness of Emily's world. That alone makes this story worth reading.

Yet Silent Melody is not entirely Emily's story. Ashley begins as a traditional wounded hero in many ways, but, unlike a traditional wounded hero, his path to redemption is not through Emily's love. He faces and fights his demons on his own; until he has done that, he cannot love Emily with a clean heart or conscience. Ashley's secrets are easily figured out but revelation is not the point: What counts is the journey to that revelation.

Above all, this is the story of love that transcends disabilities, whether emotional or physical. It is about acceptance and seeing the world through your loved one's eyes. It is about soulmates. I finished it with a sigh of repletion, my eyes stinging with happy tears. Then I placed this book on my keeper shelf, knowing I will read and re-read it many times in years to come.

--Katy Cooper

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