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.

Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses and Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife

I’ve been dithering and dathering (why isn’t that a word?) about two historical romances that I read a while back and that I liked quite a lot. So instead of not writing anything about either I decided to do a short burst of my thoughts on both, together!

Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife is a charming read while Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is one of the more thoughtful romances that I’ve read in a while.

TruePretenses_220Both the stories feature unusual heroes who helped me enjoy the books more than I otherwise would have. Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses features a hero who isn’t rich or titled. In fact he’s the polar opposite: a swindler, who makes his living by thieving. In Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes a Wife the hero is neither titled nor particularly handsome or sophisticated. What then is the reason for the sway that these heroes come to hold over the heroine, and also over me? Wherein lies their power?

For TWTaW, it’s Mr. Brundy’s absolute confidence in himself. He is a self-made man who is “Beau Brumell’s worst nightmare,” and is held in contempt by his wife. He’s aware of the considerable difficulties he faces in winning his wife’s heart and yet his sense of humour remains unflappable. He seems impervious to the insults directed his way, amusement being his most frequent reaction to words that are intended to elicit embarrassment or hurt. In this he reminded of perhaps my favourite hero in the romance cannon: Hugh Daracott.

In True Pretenses Ash’s love for his younger brother is a defining characteristic of who he is. This love, far from being expressed as manly gruffness, is poignant, and heart-breaking at times. Add to this the fact that Ash is someone who makes his living by swindling with all its inherent risks and uncertainties and moral hazards and for the first time that I remember, I find myself reading about a hero who is truly vulnerable with no safety net in sight. Here’s a bit that made me fall in love with him some more:

[He’s talking to a boy who’s about to lose his job] It’s not enough to smile, he wanted to tell the boy. You have to find a way to feel cheerful.

Ash KNOWS that it isn’t enough to pretend. The pretending has to feel real, has to feel true in order to convince the person in front of you. (Can I just say that this exploration of lies, truths, and how the two intersect is one of my favourite things about True Pretenses?)

sheri cobb southBoth the stories (more so True Pretenses) have quotidian, minutiae of life details, which appeals to me. In True Pretenses this takes the form of the workings of a small village in the middle of nowhere with its lively community and markets and everyone-knowing-everyone-else’s business. In TWTaW one of my favourite scenes is the one in which the hero’s character is revealed in startling clarity to the heroine as she visits his place of work, which happens to be a factory.

I will leave you with bits from both the books that I particularly like.

From The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South:

Any one of Manchester’s dozens of cotton mills could produce calico and gingham, but this one had produced a man. He had been tempered in the fires of poverty and hard labor, forged into a man unlike any Town beau she had ever known. He was the gentlest of men, yet he had held his ground against the Duke of Reddington’s towering rage. He was an astute businessman, yet he treated his workers with consideration and fairness. He debated labor reform with members of Parliament, yet he took the trouble to buy peppermints for a child in his employ. In their three weeks of marriage, he had never responded in kind to her verbal barbs, but had shown her more kindness, perhaps, than she deserved.

And from Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses whose next story features a butler for a hero that I can’t wait to read about!

“I like winter,” she said. “I like. . . you can feel the world waiting, and not minding the wait. People say things die in winter, but it isn’t true, mostly. They just gather their strength.”

P.S. Why do contemporary romances have such boring covers? I found the cover of TWTaW sans bare bosoms and naked chests more attractive in comparison!