Cecilia Grant has been floating around on my radar for a little while now - ever since the second in her Blackshear Family series released in May, and especially since I read Robin Reader's review of A Gentleman Undone over at Dear Author. Every good review I read made it obvious that her books would be right up my alley...and simultaneously increased my reluctance to read, because I hate to be disappointed. But then I met Ms. Grant at RWA12 and she was both lovely and gracious; Courtney Milan took a brief detour from her talk on marketing to insist that "anyone who likes Sherry Thomas would love Cecilia Grant;" and I picked up a free copy of A Lady Awakened at the Bantam Dell signing.
All of that was more than adequately convincing. (And what a bore all future such explanations will be, when my only reason for reading is that I happened across a good review, or the blurb appealed to me....)
I offer all this preface because, when you really think about it, high expectations are the worst. A perfectly fine novel can be really disappointing if you crack the cover expecting greatness. Overblown expectations will ruin your reading experience.
On the other hand, when your expectations have have expanded to truly unrealistic dimensions and the book is even better than you had hoped? I want to make an Olympics metaphor because that's going on right now, even though I'm indifferent to sports and not watching any events, but also because the comparison fits nicely - when expectations meet reality, the result is awe.
So, yeah. I am in awe.
A Lady Awakened pairs an uptight, upright heroine (Martha) blessed with an abundance of moral rectitude but a dearth of charm with a hero (Theo) who's handsome, charismatic, good-natured, and fickle. An opposites attract story, at base.
Newly widowed, childless Martha has one month to impregnate herself before her deceased husband's estate passes on to his villainous brother. She enlists Theo to give her daily doses of seed, hoping to keep the villain at bay with a quickening.
Theo prides himself on being a skilled and generous lover. He's a sensual connoisseur who's learned to appreciate women in all their varied forms, and he's pretty cheerful about the idea of sex with a prim, crusading widow. He sees the possibilities.
But Martha is determined not to enjoy herself. Sex with her fist husband was a trial rather than a pleasure, and that's scarred her. What's more, she's deeply uncomfortable with her own scheme. From the beginning, Martha knows that what she's doing is fraud, and immoral. She justifies her own acts by refusing to enjoy the process, and she actively discourages Theo from making their sexual encounters at all enjoyable.
The rest of my comments are on the spoilery side, and probably best for people who've already read the book. Click through to read.
What I loved about A Lady Awakened is how perfectly Martha's and Theo's character arcs intersect. Early on, Martha disparages Theo and his conviction that sex should be about fun and pleasure. She imagines a perfect conjugal evening, with an appropriately perfect husband - a churchman:
And as to marital obligations, likely a churchman would exercise his rights with a becoming modesty. Without so much fuss and fanfare as other men found necessary. Afterward, he and his wife would lie side by side and talk. He might try out bits of the sermon he was making that week, and ask her opinion. She might tell him what she'd observed in visiting the cottagers that day. Together they would confer, and hatch plans for bettering the lives of everyone in the parish....
[He] might come to his wife's bed some nights with no other purpose than to talk. To know what were her ideas and judgments, and to share his own with her....
A Lady Awakened, 59
It's not that Martha doesn't think she could ever enjoy sex, it's that she believes sex should be secondary - maybe tertiary or, who knows, even lower on the list - in a relationship. She sees pleasure as conditional upon respect, rapport, a meeting of minds and hearts.
And because Theo is such an agreeable sort of fellow, because Theo's primary goal is to be the perfect lover to whoever he's currently sleeping with, he slowly but surely shapes himself to fit Martha's dream. He comes to admire Martha as a person, to consult her about his plans, and he obligingly makes the sex as brief and as bland as possible.
Just in time for Martha to realize that she was wrong. She gets exactly what she asked for, only to realize that she doesn't want it anymore. She's changed - but it's more than that. Her vision of perfection was flawed, the reality unsatisfying. To me, that's the novel's real black moment - the moment of greatest intensity and despair - though the scene itself is companionable and pleasant, on the surface.
In some ways, the changes in Theo's character are more interesting than the changes in Martha's. I felt Martha, how sharp her emotions were, how guarded she was, how much she needed to change and how reluctant she was to actually do so. I rooted for her, especially when her behavior was prickly or cold.
Theo's journey felt more like a commentary on the romance genre, maybe even rebuke. Because he starts out with the kind of attitude most heroes have at the end of their character arc. He aims to please. He tries hard to be the man his woman wants, in bed and out. He's a nice guy, a good guy. But Grant shows us, through a lens that only a woman like Martha can provide, that Theo has a serious flaw.
He overvalues his desirability. He overvalues his sexual prowess. He's entirely too content with himself - as a lot of cocky Romancelandia heroes are - until he meets Martha, who rips him to shreds. Martha is not impressed, and Theo is forced to rebuild his ego almost from scratch.
There's one quote in particular from Theo towards the end that made me realize how far he had come, and how important it was that he change - that it wasn't enough, not by half, to make Martha loosen up and enjoy sex: "No lust, it developed, was so gratifying to a man as the lust that blossomed only after esteem had taken root. He might have gone his whole life without finding this out, if he'd never been exiled to Sussex." (A Lady Awakened, 276)
I'll admit that I found the ending unsatisfying. Martha makes this spur-of-the-moment, out-of-character decision to hire Theo as a lover and that's necessary to make the novel happen, so I was happy to suspend disbelief and read on. Her bargain with Theo played out beautifully, full of subtlety and nuance. Both characters go on this tremendous emotional journey, though the action itself is quiet and subdued.
But all along there's the threat of this villainous brother-in-law and, to Grant's credit, there's no neat and easy solution. When he finally shows up Martha finds out that he has two young sons, and Martha's fraudulent pregnancy is wronging them, too.
This is a pretty intense moral dilemma and Grant just doesn't have time to do it justice. The big intervention and comic hijinks everyone gets up to - teaching the housemaids self-defense moves, for example - felt so thin and inadequate, especially in comparison to everything that had come before. In the final pages, I couldn't rejoice at the knowledge that the villain is sent away to prey on women in some other part of the country, where the neighbors aren't so vigilant; that just seems like passing the buck to me, nothing to be proud of.
Anyhow, this is a minor quibble and I can't wait to read the next book in the series, A Gentleman Undone. A Lady Awakened is magnificent, a new favorite and highly, highly recommended.