I hold each and every book by Rose Lerner close to my heart. In For A Penny showed me how a tired marriage of convenience trope could be written with a fresh spin, that a debauched aristocratic lover of Gothic romance and a shy brewer's daughter/heiress/math whiz can find common ground and fall in love. A Lily Among Thorns pairs a former courtesan now innkeeper with a sharp tongue and a protective streak a mile wide for those she loves with a chemist who works in a tailor shop, has a flair for fashion design and a talent for baking up a batch of a killer almond pear tarts. Sweet Disorder gave me a fat, loud, rude widow of a newspaperman who writes improving tales for young women and pairs her with an aristocrat/soldier who limps, loves Byron and whose family is entrenched in Whig politics in Lively St. Lemeston. Sweet Disorder is such a wonderful book, and, if I had to narrow down to one thing it accomplishes perfectly, it's the way it showcases how loveable (and likeable) Phoebe really is. She does not wear her vulnerability on her sleeve but that's part of the reason why she's so delightful and utterly unforgettable. And now there's True Pretenses — a wonderful book that proves a good historical romance does not have to be about dukes and earls, rakes and rogues, genteel but feisty misses, balls, routs, or musicales.
Asher Cohen/Ash Cahill is a Jewish con man raised in the East End of London, whose mother was a prostitute, who was forced to steal by his mother's procuress after her death, was apprenticed to bodysnatchers after his usefulness as a thief wore out, did a stint as a housebreaker, and even later worked as a prostitute himself to ensure his brother, Rafe, had food, shelter, clothing. But the art of the swindle, as Ash calls it, is what he and Rafe have been perfecting since leaving London thirteen years ago. Everything Ash has done in the past 25 of his 34 years has revolved around his desire for "his brother to feel safe, as he himself never had. Fear, anxiety, illness, sadness—he’d protected Rafe with fierce care from them all." But Rafe throws a wrench in the works. He wants to stop swindling people, live an honest life, maybe join the army if he can get funds for a commission.
"Who would he even be, without Rafe? What right did Ash have to expect more than he’d already got?
What good did it do to be so angry, when he couldn’t make Rafe want to stay anyway? It was twenty-five years too late for any sleight of hand. Rafe knew exactly what life with Ash was like, and he’d decided he didn’t want it.
If Rafe wanted a new life, a respectable life, Ash would find a way to steal that for him too— one with no cannonballs or long sea journeys in it, either." (Loc. 92-103)
Ash, never long without a plan and still following his prime directive to protect Rafe, convinces Rafe to do one more swindle — one to obtain funds to buy a commission — and the two split up to scout for possible "flats." Rafe takes off for parts unknown while Ash ends up in Lively St. Lemeston.
Lydia Reeve, daughter of Baron Wheatcroft who led Tory politics in Lively St. Lemeston until his recent death, is 30 years old, was her father's hostess, and is the only mother her younger brother, James, has known in all his 21 years. Lydia's life has revolved around politics, Jamie, and her charitable work for the community all her life. But she's adrift in grief over the loss of her father, puzzled and hurt by Jamie's indifference to their father's political legacy, and frustrated at her inability to access her inheritance until she marries.
When Ash learns of Lydia Reeve, a plan begins to form:
"A pretty, rich woman with a nice arse, a mind of her own, and no sweetheart, trying to get her hands on money that was tied up for her marriage. Ash could feel his plan coming clearer. This bore looking into." (Loc. 265)
Ash, never one to show all his cards, has every intention of providing that honest life Rafe wants so badly, but it doesn't include the dangers of army life. Ash is going to "swindle" his brother and Lydia into a marriage of convenience, playing shadkhen to Rafe and Lydia, nudging both into a romance that will ensure Rafe is safe and secure, not dodging bullets.
"Rafe would be set for life here, snug and warm and loved and rich. He’d forget he’d ever thought about Canada or the army. Rafe couldn’t possibly resist all this. It was perfect, the perfect honest life left lying about on a silver platter waiting to be stolen. It gave a man itchy fingers just looking at it." (Loc. 495)
Robbie Burns said it best: "The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, / Gang aft agley," and, oh man, did Ash's schemes "gang agley." Those plans veered off slightly with that first frisson of (unwanted) attraction between Ash and Lydia, but all was not lost. After all, Ash is used to sublimating what he wants/needs in favor of Rafe's needs/wants. Gang agley? Ha! Honestly, all his plans went to hell when Lydia decides Rafe is NOT the brother she'll wed.
“I like your brother too. But…” She squared her shoulders, her chin going up even higher. He could see her pulse hammering just under the black ribbon of her bonnet. “I like you better. If you’ve any inclination, I’d rather take the same offer from you.”
Ash’s heart stopped, or maybe his ears. He couldn’t hear a sound from the street. “What?” What was common. He should have said I beg your pardon. He should have said something cleverer than either.
“I know it’s very forward of me.” Her voice trembled but her gaze didn’t falter. She had bottom. “But we’re past the proprieties, and marrying a man for convenience’s sake while nursing a tendre for his brother is something out of a tired French farce.”
“A tendre ?” Trust her to use a word he didn’t know. But her meaning was all too clear.
“For me? But— Rafe is— ”
The corner of her full mouth curved up softly. Tenderly, even. Maybe that was what tendre meant, tenderness. “Mr. Ralph is very handsome. But chacun à son goût , as they say.” (Loc. 1133-1145)
I love that Lydia is a woman who knows what (who!) she wants, and she's not afraid to reach out and grab him by his ill-fitting jacket. The romance between Ash and Lydia is simply lovely — honest, tender, thoughtful, and as necessary to both as breathing. I was reduced to a puddle when Ash finally decides he's lonely enough to read Lydia's letter.
Ash is a wonderfully complicated, nuanced character whose love for Rafe is unselfish and unconditional. Ash's life purpose is centered around Rafe — keeping him safe, happy, secure. When Rafe learns Ash, his bulwark, has lied to him, the ensuing schism is devastating to Ash.
“I would have stayed with you,” Rafe said. “I’d stay with you forever if we could have been honest, if we could be honest.”
“I am not honest,” Ash said flatly. “It’s not in me. I don’t want to be honest, any more than I want to be a Christian, or a gentleman. I’m not ashamed of who I am.” (Loc. 1253)
Rafe is angry, frustrated, disappointed, but Ash is the one who comes unmoored. His identity is so entangled in taking care of Rafe, he has no idea who he is or what he'll do. Ash realizes he "brought him (Rafe) up to expect what was inside him to matter to someone", "to leave" Ash at some point.
“Everything I’ve done since that day, I did for him. I don’t know how people go on, who haven’t anyone. I’m like a watch— I need winding. I’d have stood in the road all night if you hadn’t fetched me.” (Loc. 1514)
Lydia shares more than she realizes with Ash. Her relationship with her younger brother, James, is just as fraught with sharp, rocky edges. She has always run interference between Jamie and their father, protecting and shielding him from hurt and disappointment. She tries to push Jamie into politics and marrying, to smooth his troubled relationship with their father; but continuing the Reeve political legacy does not interest James at all. Lydia's epiphany as she realizes keeping secrets from James out of fear of losing his respect, believing he "couldn’t love the truth of her, only a lie" is heart wrenchingly honest.
“I wanted to protect you,” Lydia said. “When Mama put you in my arms you were so small, and I wanted to protect you from everything. But I’ve been thinking, and— Father was trying to protect you too by sending you. From— from not having friends when you were older, from not being the kind of man he thought you should be.”
Jamie hunched his shoulders. “Do we really have to dredge this up now?”
“I’m not defending him. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think I ever really wanted to protect you. What I wanted was to be on your side, and I didn’t know how to be. I want to do that from now on. I want you to know that no matter what you choose, even if I don’t agree, I will always listen to you. I will always support you. Against anybody. It didn’t matter that Father thought Eton was the right choice. What mattered was that you hated it, and we made you go anyway.” (Loc. 4131)
True Pretenses is a wonderful historical romance as are the themes about acceptance of others and ourselves, what defines family and home, following our heart's desire, how family relationships define who a person is, when to let go, and when to hold tight.
"You might forget,” he said. “You can’t hold on to a person when they’re gone. You can’t even hold on to people who are alive sometimes. I don’t remember my mother’s face. Not really. But I tell myself—I’m still here. So much of who I am and what I do comes from her, I’m remembering her just by living. Every time I tilt my head or pick up a teacup the way she used to, that’s a little bit of her still in the world.” He laughed a little, looking at the portrait with a wistfulness that made her eyes sting again. “I tell myself that, anyhow." (Loc. 453)
I love the way Rose Lerner continues to surprise me. In True Pretenses, she plays with the stereotypical expectation of a "tall, handsome" hero. Ash and Rafe's physical descriptions are not only an integral part of the story but also challenge a reader's expectations of what a "hero" should look like. Unlike Rafe, Ash is neither handsome nor particularly tall as heroes populating most historical romances are.
"Ash was of average height, and greater than average breadth. But Rafe towered over him, and that was Ash’s greatest pride and accomplishment: one look, and you knew he’d always had enough to eat.
And people did look. Heads turned when Rafe walked into a room, huge and golden. Dark, sturdy Ash looked like an ox or a draft horse, his brute strength meant to carry others’ burdens. Rafe was a thoroughbred." (Loc. 42)
Rose Lerner consistently delivers extraordinarily remarkable, lip-smacking good, thought-provoking historicals. I can easily claim "this character felt real, as if he/she might step out of the pages of a book", but creating those characters with all their joy, passions, dreams, disappointments, idiosyncrasies, fears, and imperfections can be difficult to execute. Yet, complex, nuanced characters are exactly what I've come to expect while reading a book by Rose Lerner. Even secondary characters and villains are well-rounded and three-dimensional. This is a writer with a gift for making the old and tired feel new again, for breathing life into tired old tropes, and putting a fresh and unexpected twist on stereotypes. True Pretenses is one of my favorite books of 2015.