Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Lady's Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran

Reading Romances Challenge for May:
1) Read a futuristic or sci-fi romance.
2) Read a book by a favorite author or from a favorite genre.
3) Read a book by recommended by a friend
4) Memorial Day: Read book whose author is now deceased.
5) Mother’s Day: Read a book where the heroine is a mother, the hero or the heroine spends the book searching for or trying to get to their mother.

* * *

While most girls dream of a Cinderella ending to their stories, Nell Whitby has her feet firmly planted in Bethnal Green's mud and filth. She's too busy counting coins, hoping she has enough to pay for rent and for her mother's medicine. While her friend Hannah stares at glossy pictures displayed in store windows, Nell stares at the bleakness of London's East End, wary of the leers from men, hoping for the day to end and waiting for a new one to start so she can go to work again.

But, what happens when a girl from the working class discovers she actually belongs with the noble class?

Following the death of her mother (and her mother's odd last words), Nell had planned to exact her revenge on the Earl of Rushden when she broke into his house -- but she discovers that there is a new earl and that she's the old earl's missing daughter -- not a bastard as her mother implied, but a legitimate one.

One look at Nell and Simon St. Maur, the new Earl of Rushden, is convinced she is the missing heiress to the Aubyn fortune. He needs Nell, desperately -- the future of the Rushden estate and his personal fortune (or lack thereof) depend on it. He strikes a bargain with her: he'll help her secure her place and birthright and, in return, she'll share her inheritance by marrying him.

Simon's claim sounds unbelievable to Nell but she accepts the bargain: how could she say no when the world is laid down at her feet and is hers for the stealing taking?

This book surprised me in a delightfully pleasant way. (I would add more adverbs and adjectives here to convey just how delightful, pleasant and amazingly wonderful this story is.) I was ready to read about Nell's transformation from factory girl to earl's daughter a la My Fair Lady -- but Meredith Duran cleverly shifts the focus of the story and takes it to a whole new level:

Yes, there are details about Nell's transformation but it is a transformation that takes place externally and internally.

But this story is about something more. It is about change, love, faith, identity, social class and everything else that comprises a person's dimensions.

A lady was meant to carry nothing but a handkerchief, smelling salts, and perhaps a vial of scent. She jammed her hands inside, feeling for the coins Simon had handed over, laughing, when she'd collected on their billiards-game wager. She didn't meet his eyes as she yanked down the window and thrust out her hand.


... "You carry some coin in your purse?"

Aye, and I've gone on my knees, too, she thought... I've crawled in the mud and I'll be damned now if I travel without a coin when I have one.
- p. 285 (right after Nell's introduction to London society)

I love that Nell never loses her identity or her sense of self. At the end of the story, she's changed but, intrinsically, she still has "old Nell's" heart, soul and dignity.

Power plays a key role in the story. Nell has grown up only knowing powerlessness. She's a cog in the great machine and doesn't imagine herself being something more. As an adult, she tries to speak out against the injustices she sees around her: the lack of ventilation at the factory, her sister in-law's plight and her step-brother's cruelty -- but Nell is made to realize that she has no power to affect any sort of change.

Simon, on the other hand, has been trained to wield power from an early age. As the heir of the Earl of Rushden, Simon has always known his place in the world. It is not necessarily the place he would have wanted for himself -- he would have been happy with his piano and his compositions -- but he has managed to carve it out to suit him.

Early in the story, there is a power struggle between Nell and Simon. While it seems Simon has the upper hand, Nell makes small victories by asserting herself in front of Simon and the staff of Rushden House.

I really like Simon St. Maur -- like Nell, he has a very pragmatic view of the world; unlike Nell, he has never seen the world beyond the boundaries of the titled class -- but Simon never shows pity for Nell. Only admiration and understanding. It is Simon who teaches Nell about power and the good Nell could do once she has it.

"I'm not weak. You're wrong if you think I am."

"Not weak," he murmured. "But these calluses on your palms tell their own story. Your time and labor haven't been your own. Imagine what it would be to set your own course, Nell. To answer to no one's bidding. I can make that possible for you."

It wasn't a promise many could offer. But she didn't doubt that he could keep it.
- p. 180

Their arrangement also undergoes a transformation: it began as a business transaction but, the paradigm shift that our hero and heroine experience, changes the relationship to one of pleasure and love. =^_^=

I love how Simon and Nell's "love" changes: from mercenary, to friendship, to romantic and, ultimately, to an unconditional love. What I love about Duran's story is that she doesn't give our hero and heroine a convenient happily-ever-after -- Simon and Nell struggle to overcome the differences in their backgrounds and the two worlds they live in.

In the end, when they declare their love for each other, one believes it and is happy for them -- it is a well-deserved happy ending. ^_^


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