Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon

In the world of regency romance, a guy has to be a duke-in-waiting or at the very least a 19th-century-equivalent-of-a-self-made-millionaire to merit status as a hero. Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon turns this convention on its head by having a gentleman’s gentleman for its hero and a maid-of-all-work as its heroine.

John Toogood has been made redundant recently and Sukey Grimes is turned out without a job. The only position open requires a married couple and so the two enter a marriage of convenience that’s made easier by the fact that they’re obviously attracted to each other. The attraction however does nothing to alleviate the insecurities that they each suffer—Toogood about his age (this is a May-December romance) and Sukey about her unworthiness for someone as grand as Toogood. That the challenges in their relationship exist despite the attraction is something I really appreciated. It drives me bonkers when authors attempt to paper over the problems in a relationship with combustible attraction.

listen to the moon

Lerner draws a richly detailed world of the early 19th century serving class, laying bare the circumscribed nature of their existence. She shows that people are people no matter their class, and that this too is a world that brims with love and longing. While the class distinctions are clear and well-defined, there’s no romanticizing of one over the other. Everyone has a story, Lerner seems to be saying. Like the man and the mistress that they used to serve, Toogood and Sukey too harbor ambition, and cope with their fears as best as they can. Yet neither Sukey nor Toogood “reach above themselves.”

It’s not that they’re not cognizant of the lot that they have been dealt with. They are. “A servant’s home was her world,” Sukey thinks to herself at one point and “John wished, not for the first time, that employers felt obligated to be as tactful and carefully distant as servants did.” But not once does Lerner even hint at the world of title-dom for her characters. She knows that sowing seeds of such ambition would completely derail the story that she is telling.

Lerner’s decision to eschew the glitter of title-dom for a story with characters who face many more practical limitations about what they can and cannot do makes for a more interesting romance-reading experience. I loved that the following perspective. . .

She’d see him fussing with Mr. Summer’s nightshirt and banyan and slippers and nightcap: Were they warm? Were they hanging too near the fire? Were the coals in the warming pan still hot, and should it be moved to another part of the bed?

Hours of work for a half-second less of chill, and would Mr. Summers even notice the difference? And John had worn himself out, nothing left for his wife.

. . . is juxtaposed with this one:

He didn’t know how to explain that it mattered to him, that these skills he’d acquired for pride and coin could comfort her. It sanctified something temporal and mundane.

I had a lot of fun seeing Sukey and Toogood lay their demons to rest. However, I did think that the story dragged quite a lot. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been tighter and shorter. I am looking forward to Mrs. Khaleel’s story though! (And yes, Listen to the Moon has made me think about Jo Baker’s Longbourn—has anyone read it?).

Maybe generosity wasn’t about giving or receiving. Maybe it was just about the sharing. In joy and care, whichever happened to be in the offing.

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant

There are things that I really liked about A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong and things that I really didn’t like.

Andrew Blackshear is a straitlaced young man with strong beliefs about propriety and honor. Lucy Sharp is his opposite, having been brought up in a manner atypical of the society and milieu she occupies. Their initial attraction to each other stems from the glimpses they have into each other’s hearts which seem to hint at something more than the personas they don. And yet, one of the reasons why I could not warm up to this story very much is right here—in their initial stages of attraction.

a christmas gone perfectly wrong cecilia grantThe opening scene of the story—Lucy is riding astride in the middle of a lane on a windswept, rainy afternoon when Andrew stops to offer assistance, catching his first glimpse of her—becomes a defining moment in their attraction for each other. He is arrested by her sight for reasons which my brain completely failed to latch on to. Maybe because the moment was a riff off of insta-love, a trope which is one of my least favorite? To be fair to Miss Grant, Andrew’s and Lucy’s relationship does not spring entirely from this one moment. But the moment does become a cornerstone in their attraction for each other and my lukewarm reaction to it meant that I was always going to be suspicious of the relationship that followed in its wake.

Andrew is a character to whom a “gentleman’s honor . . . is no frivolous indulgence. If he’s any sort of worthwhile man it’s his very backbone,” and one can see that the story moves the way it does in large parts because of this “backbone” that forms the core of Andrew’s character.

On the other hand, one of my main beefs with the story is the way Lucy’s character is written. Her manipulations of Andrew felt as if the author was manipulating me, the reader. Her actions felt like contrivance on the author’s part— attempts to orchestrate events in a certain way for the sake of moving the plot along, rather than organic everyday happenings in the life of the hero and the heroine. However, once Grant DOES manage to get her pair together, quite a few of their later conversations has that everyday feel of been-together-for-a-while which is quite lovely to read about.

Perhaps the biggest reason for my not really enjoying A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is that we see things more from Andrew’s point of view which in this case translated into me feeling as if I never really got to know Lucy’s character. Compared to Andrew, Lucy feels uni-dimensional. I could see the change in Andrew through the course of the story but Lucy’s trajectory felt flat to me. She just didn’t feel interesting the way Andrew did.

One of my favorite moments in the story again fell to Andrew’s share while Lucy simply benefits from his perspicacity. The two are quarrelling in the middle of a party when Andrew realizes that they were both talking past each other—addressing the idealized version each had in their head of the other rather than the person standing in front of them. I read the scene and lit up in recognition. Who hasn’t been the recipient, or the originator of this sort of “talking past” at some point or the other?

I’ll end with this bit:

You can’t really know whether a sentiment is abiding until it’s had a few years over which to abide, can you? Surely everyone who marries must let go the need for certainty, and proceed to some extent on hope and faith.

Mary Balogh, An Unlikely Duchess & A Promise of Spring

I want to talk about Mary Balogh! I finished An Unlikely Duchess and ooh, I just loved it!

Before delving into An Unlikely Duchess though I quickly want to mention the three other Mary Baloghs that I’ve read and enjoyed in the recent past: A Christmas Bride, The Temporary Wife and A Promise of Spring.

Oh reader! I think I have found my new favorite regency romance author!

(I’m pretty sure I’ve read some of Miss Balogh’s recent works too (I think it might be from the Simply series) but either I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for them or they didn’t hit the sweet spot in the way that her earlier books seem to be doing. I want to go hunt up all her old books now!)

The number one thing that stands out for me across all these four stories is how different their protagonists are from each other! As a lover of historical romance who’s become weary of the sameness that pervades the genre, Balogh’s earlier books seem like a breath of fresh air. Her characters have a story that is uniquely theirs.

Mary Balogh A Promise of SpringI want to talk a little bit about A Promise of Spring which features a heroine who is ten years older than the hero. It’s a marriage of convenience trope and one that is excellently executed (and since this was the third marriage of convenience trope that I read from Balogh I suspect it’s a favorite of hers).

The hero was a friend of the heroine’s brother whose death has left our heroine destitute. Right in the beginning the hero, “who commanded respect entirely through the kindliness and integrity of his character,” realizes that here was a woman “whom, belatedly, he wished to know.” There’s something about that. . . lack of a martyr-ness and “goodliness” despite the offer he makes that made me warm up to him right away.

The heroine is really well rendered. We come to know that she is one who likes to keep herself emotionally aloof from those around her. She has reasons for being and doing so. The interactions that Balogh makes us privy to between the heroine and her family with whom she’s had a fractious past rang true.

That the trajectory of this marriage of convenience mirrors the path that the heroine takes as she comes to terms with who she was, and who she has become is one of my favorite parts about the book. I just love when stories show so clearly that while external circumstances play a role in the shaping of who we are, the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are are equally important too.

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story:

Marriage was a living, dynamic relationship that must keep growing if it was to survive. They would have to want to be happy if they were to be so.

. . .

There were no certainties when one was married. Because, however close one became to another person, one never became that person.

Ahhhh. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s such a good feeling to read a story from an author who not only understands this but also incorporates it into in her story.

Ok, onto An Unlikely Duchess which is a completely different beast from A Promise of Spring!

An Unlikely Duchess Mary BaloghIn An Unlikely Duchess we have a hero—a duke—of a middling face and physique. Mr. Paul Villiers, Duke of Mitford, is a paragon of propriety and decorum who “had ever been intimate” with only one woman and that too an affair “conducted so discreetly that it was doubtful many people even knew about it.” Like with marriage of convenience, Balogh does “beta” heroes really, really well too.

Villiers is on his way to offer for our heroine, Josephine Middleton, who is perhaps the most brainless heroine I have ever had the good fortune to read about. Normally I would be up in arms about a female being characterized and referred to as brainless again, and again. But in this case—I join the chorus of characters in calling out Jo as incapable of using her head! In my defense, our heroine’s displays of brainlessness lead to such hilarious capers that I couldn’t help being glad that she was who she was!

At the very start of the story she declares, “I can’t marry this duke . . . A duke! . . . A duke, Sukey. Can you honestly see me marrying a duke? . . . I can’t marry a duke.” The marriage has been arranged by the duke’s family who are laboring under the misapprehension that our heroine is an upstanding young lady who crosses all her t-s and dots all her i-s.

Our unsure hero intercepts our heroine on his way to her home while she’s in the middle of extricating herself from the clutches of an evil villain who was supposed to help her extricate herself from the clutches of the duke in the first place. Yes, dear reader, the story stars a villain too—one who  unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the reader, is brainless too! He doesn’t realize Josephine’s true mettle. Because while she may be lacking in sense, she’s full of sensibility! And spunk! And a joie de vivre which was surprisingly fun to read about.

The poor duke being the actual upstanding citizen in this farce offers to help our heroine recover the jewels that she discovers have been stolen by the villainous personage, and as you can imagine, hilarity and romance ensue! It’s a romance of the very unobtrusive variety, the kind where the fact that two people are falling in love is announced not by trumpets or choruses but by the kind of small observations that you know two people who only have eyes for each other would notice:

Mr. Villiers looked surprised. He also looked very nice indeed, with his curls all about his face and down over the collar of his coat. He had brushed them upstairs in their room, but really he was wasting his time doing so. His hair, thank goodness, did what it wanted to do.

Or when our hero realizes that despite all his notions of propriety he still hasn’t returned our heroine back to the safety of her family:

“I think,” the Duke of Mitford said mildly, “I am a very mad gentleman, ma’am.”

Oh there is no end to the scenes which set me laughing. I don’t want to list them here—I would rather you try getting hold of a copy of the book and read it for yourself! I can say with some confidence that this is most likely going to become one of my all time favorite regency romances! It is THAT good!

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

The Unknown Ajax begins with the inhabitants of the rambling, ramshackle Darracott Mansion in a state of furor. This is not an uncommon occurrence for the Darracotts given that they are lorded over by the penny-pinching, cantankerous Lord Darracott who sets his various progeny and their progeny in turn quaking in their boots at his mere thought.

The scene is set with Lord Darracott receiving the news that his heir and the heir’s son have drowned. The news makes him particularly sullen and the reader is very soon made privy to the reason. The next in line is the son of a son who was cut-off years ago as he married a weaver’s daughter. The “weaver’s son” is the hero of the story and reader, is one of my favouritest heroes in literature. You see, this is my second re-reading of The Unknown Ajax and one of the reasons is definitely Hugo Darracott.

the-unknown-ajax-by-georgette-heyer-2011-x-200Heyer paints Hugo Darracott as bovine-like: huge, patient, and with a thick skin. I do not remember my first reading (which must have been at least 15 years ago) but I can imagine myself feeling slightly impatient with Hugo were I to be reading the book for the first time. For quite a part of the story one isn’t sure if a hero of a romance can be really that . . . simple. And hapless.

The truth of course is something else. Hugo Darracott, dear reader, is exactly the sort of understated hero who I fall head over heels in love with. He’s patient, he’s kind, and he has a “broad back.” One knows instantly and instinctively that he can be relied upon no matter what. In other words, those bovine like qualities are actually quite sexy.

He’s also a hero to a set of supporting characters who are probably some of my favourite in romance. Lord Darracott I’ve already mentioned. He doesn’t discriminate against whom to turn his nose upon. Everyone gets the same treatment.

Then there’s Lady Aurelia, a grand dame if there was ever one; a lady who “never reproved [her husband] in public” but whose mastery over her husband and her sons is evident. Here’s what Austenprose had to say and I couldn’t have said it better myself:

And there is a truly magnificent grande dame whose well-modulated voice is never raised, whose countenance rarely smiles, whose behavior towards her irascible father-in-law is always perfectly correct, and whose dignity is never compromised. Even when she beats all of the young people to flinders in a lively game of copper-loo, her response to being asked if she always holds the best cards is merely: “I am, in general, very fortunate.” She expresses her opinions as pronouncements, and makes the most splendid (though dispassionate) speeches that render her auditors without a thing to say. Lady Catherine de Bourgh only wishes she could be as majestically formidable.

The ensemble cast includes a fop, a “Corinthian,” and my personal favourite—two “gentlemen of the same calling, but of different cut,” Polyphant and Crimplesham, valets to the aforementioned fop and Corinthian. The rivalry between the two and the scenes in which they star, “suggestive of tomcats about to join battle,” is one of the many perfectly executed capers in this book.

I haven’t read Heyer’s entire oeuvre but I would be willing to bet that this is one of the funniest stories she’s written. Each character lends themselves to the mayhem and hilarity that pervades the story.

And as always, Heyer excels in dialogues. I love how her dialogues build up not only the characters but also the story. Ok, that sounds stupid. As in “Duh! Isn’t that precisely how it should be?” stupid. What I mean is that Heyer seems to have a gift for dialogue. She can have pages upon pages of dialogue with virtually no descriptions in between and yet move both the plot and her characters to a whole new set point with just that.

And speaking of dialogues, I thought Mrs Darracott’s prattle was really well done. She’s a bit of a chatterbox we are told and her ability to segue seamlessly from one subject to another is exactly what chatterboxes do I imagine. (Ok fine, there’s no imagination involved there. I speak from first-hand knowledge. Given that I’ve been labeled a chatterbox. At times.)

Which brings me to the banter between Hugo and Anthea (our heroine). Our heroine has just found out that Hugo is wealthy. Quite, quite wealthy.

“I know I told you I was mercenary, but I’m not Hugo! Only think how it would appear to everyone! As though I had been determined before ever I saw you not to let your odious fortune slip through my hands!”

He patted her consolingly. “You needn’t worry about that, love. When people see you wearing the same bonnet for years on end they’ll never think you married me for my fortune.”

“As nothing would induce me to wear the same bonnet for years on end—

“You’ll have to,” he said simply. “I’m a terrible nip-farthing. . . .”

“You seem to forget that you wished to purchase the moon for me!”

“Nay, I don’t forget that! The thing is I can’t purchase it, so there was no harm in saying it. Now, if I’d said I’d like to give you a diamond necklace, or some such thing, you might have taken me up on it. I remembered that just in time to stop myself,” he explained, apparently priding himself on his forethought.

“I should like very much to have a diamond necklace,” said Anthea pensively.

“Wouldn’t a paste one do as well?” he asked, in a voice of great uneasiness.

She had been so sure that he would fall into the trap that she was taken, for an instant, off her guard, and looked up at him with such a startled expression on her face that his deep chuckle escaped him, and he lifted her off her feet, and kissed her.

Be still my heart! This is exactly the sort of stuff that I can believe happily-ever-afters to be built on. (I might be biased though considering my husband can give Hugo a run for his money: if I had a dime for every time I thought I had had the last word. . . )

The climax of the story is funny, fraught and fabulous—a deeply satisfying conclusion to a deeply satisfying story. If there’s a Heyer you have to read, I would exhort that it be this!