>> Tuesday, July 17, 2012
TITLE: A Lady Awakened
AUTHOR: Cecilia Grant
SETTING: 19th century England
SERIES: I think the next book (A Gentleman Undone) features the heroine's brother
Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate and beloved servants from her malevolent brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes... for a fee.Martha Russell is recently widowed. Since she and her husband never had any children, her life is about to change completely. Her brother-in-law is to take over the estate, and she will have to go live with her brothers. She doesn't particularly look forward to it (in fact, the main reason she married her husband was just so she didn't have to be a dependent in one of her brothers' home), but there's nothing she can do about it.
Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all... love?
Unless, that is, she's pregnant, in which case she'll have a reprieve until the baby's born, and if it's a boy, he will inherit all. Unfortunately, Martha knows she's not pregnant, but when she finds out her brother-in-law was banished from Seaton Park for forcing himself on one of the maids, she feels she has to do something for her people. And then she hears that her neighbour has banished one of his sons to the country for being an irresponsible rake. Mr. Theophilus Mirkwood is supposed to be stranded there, his funding cut off. Surely a rake such as him would have no compunction about sleeping with a willing widow, especially if she sweetens the deal with enough funds for him to get back to town?
I loved this. Loved, loved, loved it. It was like nothing I've ever read, and in fact, it took some of the elements that annoy me the most in historical romance and stood them on its head. Like, you know those heroines who dislike the hero when they first meet him, and yet helplessly melt the minute he touches them? I'm sure you do, they're incredibly common. And they infuriate me. If they infuriate you as well, then this is the book for you.
Martha doesn't like the person she thinks Theo is, and she therefore sees sex with him as something she has to do, but has no interest in enjoying. And she doesn't.
'...some women could cultivate desire on such flimsy ground. Some women, for that matter, went about claiming just such a preference for upstanding men, and fell into the arms of the first willing scoundrel. Though Lord knows, with a willing scoundrel hired to attend her, Mrs. Russell had had every opportunity to take that fall. She wasn't so susceptible.'She really isn't. And neither is she overcome with lust at the sight of Theo naked. At all. There's this really funny description through her eyes, which perfectly shows how Martha isn't feeling particularly charitable towards men and sex. She doesn't find Theo repulsive, or anything, but she cooly analyses the design flaws inherent in having the male parts placed where they are: "Like the last leftover bits of clay scraped together, rolled into primitive forms and stuck onto the middle of him", clearly inferior to having the "breeding parts tucked neatly away". She only starts appreciating Theo's body once she starts appreciating him.
'No lust, it developed, was so gratifying to a man as the lust that blossomed only after esteem had taken root.'Yep, and no romance is so gratifying to a reader as that which blossoms thus.
Martha and Theo's relationship is very slow and gradual. Grant even manages the very tricky feat of maintaining the tension in every single sex scene, even when there are a good number of them and they start happening right at the beginning of the book. This is because every single one of them matters. It's not so much that she develops their relationship through sex, as that the slow progress of their relationship out of bed is reflected within. As they start liking and caring about each other more and more, this is reflected in bed as well. It was brilliantly done.
While with Martha, it's mostly her feelings for Theo and her opinion of him that changes, Theo undergoes a much bigger change. He starts out as a nice enough chap, who isn't particularly interested in the world outside his very narrow one, or in doing anything useful. But as he spends time with Martha, there is an increasing realisation that it feels good to be respected, to have his opinion listened to when it's offered, and then even sought. In short, he grows up, and becomes the perfect mate for Martha. He doesn't change for Martha, but seeing the world through her eyes, and meeting some of the people she brings him in contact with (especially a certain tenant on the estate -the subplot involving him and Theo made me cry).
I know some people have had issues with Martha basically deciding to defraud her brother-in-law. Yep, she is doing exactly that, and yet, since what she does fits her rigid, hyper-responsible character, and since while she's doing it, she's well aware of the ethical issues involved, I was perfectly happy with this element. As I was with the solution to the problem at the end of the book.
I also liked that Grant doesn't feel the need to change Martha all that greatly. Her feelings for Theo change as he changes, and as she gets to know him better, but there's never a suggestion that she was too rigid at the beginning, too unwilling to properly appreciate the wonder that is the hero, and which every decent heroine should bow before. Yes, she's not an easy woman, but there's nothing wrong with that. Difficult women are my favourite type of heroine, in fact.
MY GRADE: An A.