This is a pleasant, luscious historical novel set in 1880’s London with a slightly unbelievable, though enjoyable, heroine. Emily Ashton, the recently bereaved widow of the fabulously wealthy Viscount Ashton, has at last achieved independence from her parents as well as financial independence; the bad news is, she’s trapped in the confines of Victorian mourning for two years. Emily is mourning a husband she barely knew, and the constraints of wearing black and keeping away from society might really drive her crazy if she hadn’t stumbled into her husband’s love of Greek culture – both its sculpture and its poetry. As Emily applies herself to learn Greek after discovering the poetic joys of The Iliad in translation, she becomes more and more drawn into the world of her dead husband. She had known him mainly as a hunter, but when she finds his journals and discovers his matching passion for Homer (and the eternal question, which man is more to be admired, Hector or Achilles?) she begins to not only understand her dead husband, but to fall in love with him as well. Philip, Viscount Ashton, had died of a fever while hunting in Africa; crawling out the woodwork are two of his closest friends, the dashing Colin Hargreaves, and the more socially acceptable, though impoverished, Andrew Palmer. Emily is drawn to both men, but independent enough – and by the middle of the novel, genuinely grieving her husband enough – to hold them both at arm’s length.
Emily also uncovers a counterfeit art scheme which seems to implicate both her husband and one or both of her newfound friends. Luckily, some of her other new friends are women who are either unconventional or rich enough to shun the good opinion of society, and they help Emily resolve her dilemma and uncover the secret of the counterfeit art. When is seems that Philip might not be dead, the plot thickens; by this time, Emily is so desperate to spend time with the husband she didn’t appreciate in life that she sends the butler out to buy him the latest Conan Doyle novel so he can read it when he comes home. I can’t give away the resolution, but I will say that while Emily has the spark and independence of Anne Perry’s heroines Hester and Charlotte, this author doesn’t share Perry’s edginess of plot or view of the heart of social darkness that could so easily turn up in Victorian Britain. This is a novel full of romance, beautiful homes, lovely art work and poetry, and pleasant enough that I wouldn’t mind continuing Emily’s acquaintance. And she does find the man at the end who has the “right” answer to the question, Hector or Achilles? Hector, if you remember, was Paris’s sensible, family oriented brother, while Achilles, of course, was the impossibly perfect god, except for his one fatal flaw. Emily’s preference is a good start in understanding her character; here’s hoping the obviously talented Alexander can flesh her out a bit more in subsequent books.