London, 1840. At the height of Victorian hypocrisy, two men meet and fall in love. Their romance is forbidden, punishable even by death, but their passion blossoms thanks to a paper Valentine.
Saint Valentine’s Day has become a new and very popular day for lovers. Thousands of Londonites are clamouring for the ideal romantic gift. While men buy chocolate and posies, they yearn for something more unusual, more personal. Enterprising brothers Aldon and Samuel Barnaby hit upon the idea of paper Valentines, creating lavish presentations decorated with silk, lace, and paper flowers.
Aldon is fortunate to have his perfect valentine going to his expectant wife, Geneve, but Samuel still longs for his own true love, pouring his heart and soul into his beautiful creations. Samuel’s romantic verses inside his paper Valentines are in huge demand, yet not a single local girl can lay claim to his heart…because his passion lies not in a woman, but another man—Jude, a handsome but shy widower.
Jude's heart, haunted by grief, hasn't been ready to consider marriage again. But slowly, through his inclusion in the Barnaby family's lives...and his frequent excursions to stop and stare at the Barnabys’ shop window...he begins to wonder in what direction his future lies.
Can Samuel possibly allow his heart to explore love with another man? Could Jude ever love him in return? He sends Jude an exquisite, anonymous paper Valentine, not suspecting that his entire world is about to be turned upside down…
I love being taken for a walk back in time, and last night I was, when I read Paper Valentine in the bath! Okay, not your most conventional place to read a book on an ereader, but bath time is my time, and I indulged.
I want to touch on the characters here and how I felt while reading. Samuel, our main hero, runs a printing shop with his brother, Aldon, who is married to a beautiful model named Geneve. The differences between Aldon and Samuel are that Aldon has found true love, can express it openly if he chooses, and Samuel can’t—nor would he in this day and age where, although no one has been executed for being gay for seven years, a man would be put in prison for loving another of the same sex if he got caught doing so.
It isn’t that Samuel hasn’t found true love—he has, just that Jude, the man of his dreams, may not even be gay. May not ever return those feelings. I felt for Samuel here and also knew that him attending his brother’s dinner parties was his way of seeing Jude as often as possible. Just being in his company would have to be enough. They got along well, but Samuel hadn’t been given any reason to believe Jude would one day return his feelings; after all, Jude had been married, was now a widower, so surely he wasn’t interested in men…
What fascinated me was the theme that showed Samuel’s life as possibly being one of attending his brother’s dinner parties and playing the part of a happy man forevermore, when, quite clearly, that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted love, to be able to love without fear—but that wasn’t possible. If he did engage in a male/male relationship, it would be fraught with the fear of being caught or exposed. That must have been awful, hence the clubs men attended in order to be themselves with men of like mind.
Samuel and Aldon have money—that is clear due to them having running water and gas, plus Samuel has a charming pair of shoes that I’ll touch on shortly—so the other apparent theme for me was that money can’t buy you love. He may have comfort, may not live in squalor like those less fortunate in the vast city of London, may not ever go hungry, but the one thing he does hunger for, he can’t have. Not openly, anyway.
I loved Samuel’s irritation with the rather annoying Miss Swanson. She irked me, so it stood to reason she would annoy Samuel more—of course she would, when Geneve thought she was doing the right thing by playing Cupid between Miss Swanson and Jude at each dinner party. Samuel had to sit and listen, watch the simpering woman fawn over the man he had strong feelings for—and not be able to do a thing about it. Jude was a gentleman, gave no indication he found Miss Swanson as annoying as Samuel did, so Samuel was left thinking he had no chance, bless him.
So Samuel threw himself into making paper Valentines, penning words of love to be included on them, words he longed to say to Jude. I found this aspect very touching, and “seeing” him in my mind as he worked alone (Aldon wasn’t too hot at coming into work on time or for long periods), feverishly creating his pieces through the night, really was quite sad.
And then the time comes when Jude surprises Samuel... Jude does have feelings for him, he is gay, maybe only married a woman because that’s what was expected of him, and the love affair begins. Samuel’s wonder, his shock and surprise, and at the same time his excitement that this could be happening to him is lovely to read about. He’s a strong man, vulnerable in private, and when he sobbed with Jude…ah, that brought a tear to the old eye. They knew their love was forbidden, knew the consequences, but the two of them crying with relief that they had been able to admit their feelings to one another was a great moment, one I don’t think I’ll forget.
So, the shoes. I may be being fanciful here, my mind conjuring things just because that’s what I do when reading, but in the beginning, Samuel leaves the print shop in a hurry to help Geneve cook dinner because her staff have left her in the lurch. He leaves with his gorgeous shoes on, and rushes through the slop-filled streets of London to get to her home. His shoes get dirty, and when he arrives they smell of the dirt and stink of lower-class London. This gave me an insight into the true man Samuel is—if someone he loved needed help, he would go straight to them, regardless of whether his shoes (he) got dirty and ruined. That struck me very strongly as one of the best insights in the book with regards to his character.
Jude Curtis stood in the doorway of the dining room, smiling at him. (My heart and stomach lurched for Samuel here.)
“You look strange…feverish.” (LOL)
…almost made him forget he was wearing smelly shoes.
“What a saintly man,”
…the laughter at the table felt safe and conspiratorial.
Miss Swanson slid her gaze to Jude, whose attention seemed to be on a pea he pushed around his plate with his fork. (Here I knew Jude might well be in a world of his own, thinking about Samuel in the way Samuel thought of him. Lovely.)
Samuel felt better when Miss Swanson stopped giggling. (LOL)
Trapped like an insect in treacle…
…turned into amusing parlour gossip and not fodder for criminal charges.
Take. Take it all.
“I dream of these corners,” (Have a Kleenex handy here, folks.)
He didn’t care how many slippers he ruined.
…just scraps of laughter, kisses on his face, whispered words that would probably die with the night. (Best line of the book for me. Lovely.)
“…and even looking at you the way I am can get us both in trouble.” (I can’t even begin to imagine. This was so sad.)
This tale of love, the character of Samuel, really drew me in. I was surprised at how quickly I invested emotions in him, how much I wanted things to work for him and Jude. If you like delving into characters and they are your ultimate focus when reading, and, of course, you enjoy the feel of days gone by, Paper Valentine is a recommended read from me just for the joy of reading about the beautiful Samuel.