|Portrait of a Lover is a second-chance-at-love story. Though it is
fairly well written, little distinguishes it from similar novels.
Twelve years ago, Annabelle Lawson met a man on a train and, despite
the presence of an elderly female relative, arranged to see him again. Their first assignation by the river lead to another. Over the course of weeks, he taught her how to fish, and she painted his portrait. By the end of the summer, she was certain she was in love with him and had every reason to believe he reciprocated her feelings. So when he decided to call their relationship off, she followed him to his work place to change his mind. That was when she discovered the kind and amorous Mr. Edwards was in fact the
villainous Magnus Wallis, her adopted brother Whitby's cousin and sworn enemy.
Magnus had never intended to let things go so far. He kept his identity secret, believing that Whitby (whose story is told in Love According to Lily) would never tolerate him and that he had no place in Annabelle's world. When he realized their summer affair was becoming too serious, he deliberately denied any feeling for her, hoping to put a stop to further developments. And when Whitby offered him a substantial sum of money in exchange for leaving the country, he accepted.
Having made his fortune in the United States, Magnus is now back in England. He hopes to win Annabelle's love again and invites her to exhibit her paintings at his art gallery. She accepts this second chance at love, but they still have to convince her brother to
withdraw his disapproval.
My main discomfort with the novel is Annabelle's far too rapid decision to give Magnus another chance. Despite his first betrayal and deception, she doesn't hesitate too much about accepting his invitation. Of course, permitting him to show her paintings is in her
own interest: it isn't every day that an unknown can exhibit in the company of the best. But soon after she agrees, she discovers that he is not as selfish and mercenary as she suspected. Can a man who gives money to orphans and who rebuilds tenement housing at his own cost be really bad? That little doubt is enough for her to jump into bed with
him. And after a couple of days sharing sheets, all her hesitation is gone. Can I be blamed for thinking her a ditz?
Annabelle nevertheless demonstrates more intelligence at the end when she deliberately postpones her romantic resolution to pursue a different path. This detour intimates more substantial character development and a final reunion that is much more credible for me.
Some passages jarred with the rest of the book. While it is pretty clear that Magnus left Annabelle twelve years ago because he believed there was no future for them, at certain moments he speaks as if he had deliberately set out to deceive her to get his back on Whitby. A kind reader would see these inconsistencies as indications of a
conflicted character. A harsher one would argue for a stronger editorial hand. She would also wonder whether Julian Maclean was having a hard time making the characters in this novel fit with what they do in earlier novels in the series.
While Portrait of a Lover is supposed to be a historical romance, the
background is sparse. I do not ask to be drowned in detail, but I do appreciate the small touches that reveal the essence of a period. Yet, with the exception of the occasional mention of groundbreaking painters, such as Mary Cassatt, the characters occupy a whitewashed landscape that could be placed at any point in the nineteenth century. In fact, the story could even be transposed to the present without too many changes.
Portrait of a Lover is not so badly flawed as to be avoided. It simply isn't rich enough to be kept forever.