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.
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.