Title: A Lady Awakened
Author: Cecilia Grant
Rating: Like, all the stars
So, recently I found myself in need of a little fluff. A book that would make me forget myself for a few hours and help me set aside some anxieties. I’ve read a fair amount of romance over the last few years, and I’ve read a whole lot more than usual since the world went to shit. Cecilia Grant is an author I haven’t read a lot of, but I like what I have seen. I figured A Lady Awakened would be enough fluff to lift me out of my mood.
Turns out, it might be my favorite romance novel ever.
At least, since the last favorite romance novel I read and before the next one.
In any case, I really, really, really loved. it.
Recently widowed Martha Russell is in a predicament. She’s about to be tossed out of her home, with a significantly reduced dowry, in favor of her deceased husband’s brother, unless she turns out to be carrying an heir. More than for herself, though, she worries about her brother-in-law’s bad reputation, and what it means for the community she’s been trying to better since her marriage. She is decidedly not pregnant by her husband, but in desperation she comes up with an audacious scheme that could save or destroy her.
Theo Mirkwood is a dissolute rake who has been banished to the country by his father in the hopes that he will learn land management and grow up a little bit, prospects which completely bore him. When the stern widow next door calls on him he’s intrigued; when she proffers an indecent proposal wherein he will have one month to try to get her pregnant, he is unexpectedly tempted.
These two strangers jump straight into what they think should be a simple business arrangement, only to inevitably become more entangled as the days go by.
I worried a bit at the beginning of A Lady Awakened. The characters are lying straight off the bat, pretty big lies with pretty big consequences, and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to like them as a result. However, Grant does a superb job of developing these characters, making their motivations real and immediate. They understand the madness of their situation, they face the various consequences of their lies. They are empathetic and compelling where they very easily could have come off as selfish or reckless. So that concern was put to bed pretty early.
One of the reasons I enjoy romance is because of how often it is intensely focused on two characters and their development, separately and together. Oftentimes one character will stick out above the other to me. That’s not the case here. Theo is fantastic. Martha is incredible. Put them together, and I was constantly like now, kiss:
I have a select few romance heroes who are perennial favorites. Winter Makepeace of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Thief of Shadows. Colin Sandhurst of Tessa Dare’s A Week to be Wicked. Basically every character K. J. Charles has ever written. And now, Theo Mirkwood.
Let me tell you about Theo and how beauteous he is.
Theo doesn’t have many high expectations of himself for the sheer fact that no one else ever has. He likes spending his father’s money, enjoying the society of London, and having lots of sex with lots of ladies. He’s ridiculously proud of his…ahem, endowments. When Martha doesn’t immediately come undone due to his ministrations, he takes it as something of a personal affront, and engages on a quest to successfully seduce her as well as knock her up. He devotes himself to finding the key to her pleasure whether she wants him to or not.
Meanwhile, out in the world, he begins to develop relationships with the tenant farmers on his land. He sees problems that have contributed to poverty, and is inspired to think of solutions. He learns, and tries, and fails, and tries again. He isn’t naturally the smartest or most business-minded, but he is good with people, and has a stronger sense of duty and responsibility than he ever would have realized had he not met Martha.
So often in romance, even good, modern ones, you have a hero who starts out sexy and cocky but emotionally distant, who has to learn that love isn’t a dirty word. They often don’t grow very much beyond that. But Theo, though he starts out sexy and cocky, is never emotionally distant. He’s bright and open. And over the course of the book, he grows up. You watch him reorder his priorities, you see him mature. It’s quite lovely.
Then, we have Martha.
Heroines in romance suffer from just as much tropeiness as the heroes. As with any trope, it’s all in how the authors handle it. But a lot of modern heroines fall into one of a few narrow templates–feisty bluestocking, imperiled virgin, and the like–which can get boring.
Martha was unlike any heroine I think I have ever read. At the start of the book she has been married for only ten months, but in those ten months she has worked diligently to open a school and further the education and opportunities for the children of her tenants. Her husband’s sudden death puts that work at risk, but more than that, when she learns that her brother-in-law has a reputation for raping servants, she is determined to keep those servants safe by any means necessary. People see her as cold, because she shoulders the responsibilities of the world without opening up to anyone. But she feels deeply, and has a keen sense of justice. She has a steel backbone. She’s not a snarky bluestocking rattling off one-liners. She’s not flashy. She takes a long time to realize her own worth and value. It’s a deeply relatable character arc, one that I treasured.
Romance works best when characters are interesting on their own, but become better versions of themselves together. A Lady Awakened is one of the best examples of this that I have ever seen. Martha inspires Theo to become more responsible and adult, Theo helps Martha open up emotionally and not shoulder so many burdens on her own. They build a partnership in the truest sense.
Most romances, particularly historical ones, require suspension of disbelief to one degree or another. Dukes didn’t marry kitchen maids, queer people could be imprisoned and killed, and knocked-up widows couldn’t remarry within two months and ever expect to be accepted by society. Yet in fiction, these characters get happily-ever-afters all the time, across a spectrum of believability.
Frankly, the solution to Martha and Theo’s problems, the setup for their happily ever after, is absurd. It never would have worked out in real life. And I know that bothers some readers. But for me, in this case, I was able to accept the fantasy and totally go along with it. The characters were so strong, their development so believable, that I totally bought into any absurdities of their situation.
Add to all this character work some really strong, vibrant prose, a taut and intriguing plot, and supporting characters who don’t at all feel like cardboard props, and A Lady Awakened is an all-around winner. If you haven’t read romance, or have become bored by some of its tropes, this is definitely a great example of the genre to try. And, hey, it got me out of my head for an entire weekend. That’s always a fantastic thing.