A Victorian theater provides a home for outcasts in Conroy’s (But from Thine Eyes, 2017, etc.) historical novel.
Homosexuality is illegal in late-19th-century London, so handsome young actor Jeremy O’Connell must keep his relationship with fellow thespian Tommy Quinn a secret outside of their social circle. Jeremy and Tommy are preparing for a small production of Much Ado About Nothing when ingénue Katherine Stewart arrives to play Hero, fresh from her family’s traveling variety act and heartbroken that her sweetheart, Simon Camden, is leaving London. Simon asks Jeremy to look after Katherine, and Jeremy grudgingly provides the naïve actress with acting lessons and half a bed in his tiny flat. Jeremy’s annoyance with Katherine gradually transforms into platonic love, though, and the two settle into a fake marriage, living as man and wife while each pursues his or her own affairs. Tommy is later imprisoned for sexual misconduct, but Jeremy and Katherine become theatrical celebrities, starting their own prominent acting company and teaching drama classes that attract starry-eyed student Rory Cookingham. These characters, however, only occupy about half of the book. Other chapters focus on Elisa Roundtree, a beautiful, isolated teenage girl desperately trying to escape an impending, forced marriage to a brutal man. Her plight draws the attention of her school’s smitten new art teacher, who tries to help her. The characters’ stories often feel oddly unrelated to one another, and it’s especially unclear, until quite late, how Elisa’s plotline relates to the actors’. The actors’ chapters often present intriguing setups. However, they rush through them; Jeremy’s feelings toward Katherine, for example, mutate from annoyance to adoration, but more through summary than scene work. Their scenes also lack a sustained conflict, as the author seems more focused on setting up Book II than offering compelling plotlines in Book I. The characters tend to be underdeveloped, overall, but they’re still enjoyable when given good plotlines. Elisa’s storyline, for instance, is far more engaging than the thespians’; she becomes increasingly desperate as her wedding day approaches, experimenting with both acquiescence and defiance.
A fun read when the story slows down and allows the characters to engage with one another.