Review: Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen

For my birthday a few months ago, my sister got me this book. Both her and I have very similar literary tastes so when she got me this book I was very excited to start reading it–I totally trust her literary judgement, since she is a librarian she knows all the good books/authors :).

She had heard lots of good things about it and said she thought it was part of a series but wasn’t sure. She knew the author had written other historic works such as Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV which I saw featured on Goodreads around the same time.

Karleen Koen has written four books, Dark Angles, Through a Glass Darkly, Now Face to Face, and Before Versailles….for more info check out her website. All of the books are set in 17th-18th century England and France  and all feature colorful blue blood aristocrats so if you love historic fiction of this period, these books are for you!

I was ready for something new and different. As I was browsing my bookshelf I decided to pick up Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen. Since the book falls under the historic fiction category I decided to use it as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

I read lots of good reviews on Goodread and was excited to start it despite its length (673 pages!). I have to admit, I didn’t get as into the book as I thought I would. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the story, because I did but at times I felt like the plot line was in want of something more. The characters were unique….I really liked the family matriarch ‘Grandmama’, the Duchess of Tamworth.

She was all kinds of colorful and eccentric but yet had the air of a real lady….a strong leader who made no apologies for her choices. She has such as sense of duty and tradition that one couldn’t help but admire. The main character, Barbara, was so virginal and innocent that at times it was hard to identify with her. The mother, Diana Lady Alderly, was such a ruthless bitch that I could never fell badly for her–at all!

In short, Barbara marries a man old enough to be her father (at least!), she is just barely 15 and he is in his early 40’s. The marriage is more or less arranged though Diana and the Duchess…..Diana wants Barbara to marry Roger because they are broke and Roger is rich….Barbara thinks she is in love with Roger, and the Duchess helps move the marriage along to make her granddaughter happy.

In the end, no one is really happy and the dark cloud of ruin creeps closer and closer to the family. I will leave it at that so I don’t spoil it for those who want to read it. Oh and FYI, Through a Glass Darkly is the middle book of the series though I believe it was published first. The prequel to Through a Glass Darkly is Dark Angels, the final book being Now Face to Face.

I think one thing that limited my ability to really get into the book were all the small side stories. There were side stories about Teresa (Barbara’s lady maid), Jane (Barbara’s childhood friend), Cesar White (Teresa’s love interest), Diana’s love life, Carlyle, Harry (Barbara’s brother), Barbara’s relationship with father, MAry (Barbara’s cousin), and the South Sea Company stock disaster (a real life event that crippled the British economy in the 1720).

I failed to see the impact of Teresa and Jane’s side stories to the over all development of the novel. I could understand the need for the South Seas Company stock disaster being important to the novel especially as a historic fiction writer…..including real historic events and figures/characters is key so I could see why that part of the story was relevant. But I just couldn’t really see any of the other side stories relevance. I didn’t really see how they tied into the ending either……maybe it was just me but I felt the novel could have done without this added ‘fluff’.

There was just no closure with some of the side stories either… Carlyle, there was serious promise in his character…..I thought he was going to be this great villain in the story and play a huge role as Barbara’s or Roger’s arch enemy but then….nothing. He wasn’t critical to the story but

The other thing that bothered me was that the whole first half of the novel focused on Barbara’s pending nuptials to Roger and then hit a high note with Barbara finding out about Roger’s lover in Paris. Then the whole book shifted course and we were all of a sudden 5 years in the future…..there was a ‘low’ and then everything kicked into high gear with the Charles scandal and duel which more or less brought about the end of the book.

I felt like the build up to the marriage was so lengthy that I was expecting the ‘fall out’ to be a little more dramatic. That and I didn’t think that 5 years between the Paris affair and the reconciliation was enough to really see growth in Barbara. Because she was so young when the novel began, I just didn’t think 5 years was enough time to show significant growth on her part.

There were also times that I felt like she was too much like Diana so it made it hard for me to like her as a character. I never really felt like Roger loved her and in general he just seemed too old for her….in the end I liked the direction that the book was taking with Barbara and Tony’s relationship but I felt like it was a little too late though it did make me want to read the next book in the series. I didn’t really see the growth and strength that I hoped to see in a strong female protagonist.

Though I didn’t like Roger as a love interest, I did like the promise of a real love interest in Tony…I think theres an interesting side story in Charles and Barbara’s relationship that I would LOVE to read more about but Tony definitely shows potential as a character which makes me really want to read the next book. Seeing Tony develop into this attractive, confident, charming man who was so clearly in love with Barbara was refreshing. Roger was kind of old and boring…..Charles was too fierce and impetuous…..Tony was more loyal and respectful of Barbara but at the same time for a moment there it was clear he has a passionate side (toward the end when Tony thinks Barbara has been with Charles he shows he is capable of strong emotion)….he has all the makings of a great ‘love’ for Barbara so I am excited to read the next book to see how that all turns out.

Some of the other things that I liked about the novel was that it was historically compelling…..I liked that Koen did her research on the period and I felt like she really knew the period and style. She did make the characters very over the top and eccentric which is characteristic of the period. I also liked the romantic style of language used (also typical of the period). I loved the reflection and philosophical musings of the characters…this helped me keep up with the book immensely.

I thought that Koen takes you right to the edge as a reader with all the makings of a good story but then….she fails to jump and suck you in entirely. All the promise but no deliverance….its a good story but I struggled with it at times. Just about the time I was thinking, I wonder when it’s going to pick up should I keep reading….???…it does so at least there is some momentum. I don’t know that I would read it again, but that said I think I am going to read the other 2 books….maybe not right away but soon. I felt like this book left the reader hanging and wanting to know what happened—if nothing else, for Tony’s sake.

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen

  • Paperback, 674 pages
  • Published May 1st 2003 by Sourcebooks Landmark (first published 1986)
  • ISBN 1402200447 (ISBN13: 9781402200441)

This book counts toward: Historic Fiction Reading Challenge 

Recommendation: 3 out of 5 (good but not great, promise but no deliverance)

Genre: Literature, Fiction, Historic Fiction

Memorable lines/quotes:

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies (497)

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