Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

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Phoebe Sparks is a Whig, but such a fact is not useful to her. A widow, Phoebe has chosen to live independently, without relying on her late husband's family or her own and she makes ends meet with her writing. Despite the meagreness and simplicity of her life, she is happy because she is independent and makes her own decisions, living the life she wants to live. But it is election time and Phoebe's late husband's vote will make the difference between who will win the elections in their town. The Tories want that vote and so do the Whigs -- and the only way for Phoebe to give that vote is by marriage ... something Phoebe has sworn never to do again.

Suddenly, plain and quiet and ordinary Mrs. Sparks is the center of both party's attention and each one has a candidate for Phoebe's hand in marriage. But Phoebe is busy with other things: her younger sister just revealed that she is pregnant and has been booted out of their mother's house. Her brother-in-law, Jack Sparks, (a Whig) is in love with the Tory MP's daughter -- it's all a big mess, really ... and it's up to Phoebe to fix everything.

Phoebe didn't want this shop to go under. All she had to do, to ensure it and Helen's security both, was marry the man. Why couldn't she say the words?
- Chapter 8

It doesn't help the situation when Nick Dymond, the brother of the Whig candidate arrives in Lively St. Lemeston for the very specific reason of courting Phoebe's vote -- and while Phoebe tries her best to like Mr. Moon and Mr. Fairclough, she finds it easier to like Mr. Dymond, and she's not supposed to.

What unfolds next is a most charming, most engaging portrait of small town politics and of a young woman navigating her way through the tricky (and tense) line between the two parties.

Phoebe is such a complex and complicated character. She's so incredibly outspoken and blunt -- but there's also a vein of vulnerability to her. She tries her best to keep everything together, but there is a limit to every person and Phoebe is nearing hers. She juggles her sister's and her brother-in-law's affairs, as well as her own -- and I really admired how calmly and fairly she handled the two gentlemen vying for her hand and vote. She's a strange mix of abrasive and loveable -- and incredibly real. My heart broke for her during her confrontations with her mother and my heart was giddy, especially when she was accommodating Mr. Moon. In some sense, I really wanted her relationship with Mr. Moon to succeed. It was fun reading about her visits to Mr. Moon's and sharing her love for reading while he would share his love of desserts. I love how she was gracious and tried to mask her dislike of sweets, which I thought was a weird quirk (what woman doesn't like sweets? ^_^) -- but I saw it as a reflection of who Phoebe is as a character. She's unlike any other heroine that I've ever read about and she isn't afraid to go against the grain.

She hid a smile. He wasn't, after all, much more tactful than she was. "I didn't mean to be rude. As I said, I haven't read his lordship's work. I might like it. Plenty of others do."

He smiled. "No, I do believe rudeness comes to you quite unconsciously."
- Chapter 2 (Phoebe and Nick are discussing Lord Byron)

* * *

"...My heart doesn't start and stop at my command. Or yours, or your mother's for that matter."
- Chapter 9

Nick doesn't fit into his family, either. The Dymonds have been involved in politics forever, but Nick chose to become a soldier -- and then he returns home with a limp. In a family that values perfection and conformity, Nick sticks out like a sore thumb. The only reason why he agreed to help out his brother is because of a wager he made with his mother.

She had never had the slightest bit of faith in him. Nick tried not to let it sting. Why should she have? It was only in the army that he had found something worth working for, worth fighting for. He'd been useful there, even valuable. He'd became someone to be relied on.,

Now he was useless again.
- Chapter 1

I did like how Phoebe and Nick rubbed together. While their stations in life were not equal, it didn't stop them from engaging/interacting with each other as equals. The love that develops between the two is very natural and is the product of the logical progression of events: they spend a lot of time together, they communicate very well with each other, they've shared secret pains and hopes with each other, etc. It isn't driven by lust or physical attraction (well, Phoebe does find Nick very handsome) -- but is rooted in a sense of companionship and connection that goes beyond the body.

But this point leads me to the one aspect of the story that was jarring for me: the sex scenes have a very different tone and voice compared to the rest of the story. While they were very well-written, those scenes felt disjointed (and a bit dark) (read: Chapter 17).

The most fascinating aspect of this book is how Rose Lerner has woven politics and romance into a cohesive story. I am amazed by how thoroughly she has presented the bipartisan politics that existed (and still exists) in England today. At certain points, I was tempted to view this book as historical fiction with a splash of romance. Fellow readers, be assured that the romance is present and it is as practical and as no-nonsense as Lerner's heroine.

Sweet Disorder is an interesting commentary on the role of women in politics. On one hand, I am happy to read that Phoebe actually holds such power -- but, on the other hand, I am sad that she could not use the vote herself and must give it to her husband. I thought Lerner set her story against a very interesting time, where women had greater involvement in their community -- it is an encouraging story, but also one with a gentle reminder: we still have far to go.

"But what if you say no, and he's angry? He could tell everyone you kissed him."

"He won't," Phoebe promised as they half-ran towards the Drunk St. Leonard.

"How do you know?" Helen held her skirts up with one hand and her hair carefully in place with the other.

Phoebe just knew. "He wants me votes," she said flippantly.
- Chapter 10

Finally, I appreciate how clear and distinct Lerner's voice and style is. It's very new to me and I find that I lack the words to accurately describe her writing. ^_^ It's a wonderful mix of pastoral (?) and social commentary and I loved the details she included to make Lively St. Lemeston so real, so homelike, and so alive.

Congratulations to Rose Lerner for this wonderful book! I look forward to the next instalment in her Lively St. Lemeston series.

To find out more about the author, click below:


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