Click here to purchase Improper Relations on Amazon
Click here to purchase Improper Arrangements on Amazon
Click here to purchase Improper Proposals on Amazon
When I first read a sample of Improper Relations, the first book in Juliana Ross's series, I expressed some hesitations about buying a copy. Still, Juliana Ross was an author on my radar, and, when the book was offered for free late last year, I took the opportunity and got it.
I read it recently and hadn't planned on writing a review of it because I already had a backlog of reviews to write, but, the most curious thing happened: after I finished reading the first book, I was immediately curious about the second book and purchased that one. And then, when I finished the second book, I went online again and bought the third book.
After reading all three books, I felt the need to write this -- and it's a first for me to review an entire series as a whole -- and I'm excited to do so.
It's a solid series and one worth reading for the following reasons:
1. It's a thoughtful analysis on what society considers "improper" --
Hannah's relationship with Leo was considered improper because she was a poor relation who worked as his mother's companion and he was the younger son of a lord, who was expected to make a good match. After Hannah witnesses an illicit tryst between Leo and one of the maids, it awakens a curiosity in her -- one that Leo was happy to assuage.
It's a novella filled with sex, but it seems to be Ross's point. Hannah slowly awakens and comes into her own with each encounter with Leo. At the beginning of the story, she's a frightened, quiet mouse -- a widow who was afraid to go out into the world, so she ended up being dependent on her late husband's relatives to help her. But, by the end of the story, Hannah becomes a woman who dares.
...From this moment on, I resolved, I would tell no one the truth, allow no one to comprehend the loss I had sustained.
I would face the barren days to come with steady resolve, as I'd always tried to do when life disappointed me. I would build a new life for myself, though my life was already over.
And I would never look back.
- Hannah, Improper Relations, loc 1087
Alice is the heroine of the second novella, Improper Arrangements. After being "jilted" by Leo, she decides that she is done with the whole marriage business and wants to indulge in some adventure. She hires E.P. Keating to guide her through the mountains as she draws the flora of the Swiss Alps. Alice's arrangements with Eli is considered "improper" because she is a woman on her own, with no companion. Add to that, she and Eli mutually consent to start a relationship on their trek. They've laid out the ground rules and are happy to indulge in their mutual attraction to each other. Alice is very different from Hannah. She is fortunate to have her own money and means and she has a family who is very supportive of her interests --
Yes or no?
He wanted to share my bed, no more. He wasn't asking for my heart. He didn't covet my fortune. All he wanted was my body, and only as long as our journey together lasted.
"Yes," I said, and I was amazed at how calm and steady my voice sounded.
- Alice, Improper Arrangements, Chapter 8
The second novella shows a lot of growth in Ross as an author. Yes, the sex is there and, yes, it is scintillating -- but there's also a wonderful story between Eli and Alice, who are both so self-reliant, and so gifted in their particular passions: climbing and painting.
But, I think it is in the third instalment, Improper Proposals, that Juliana Ross really comes into her own.
Caroline is the widow of a vicar and she has approached Thomas Cathcart-Ross (Alice's brother) for help in publishing her very proper manual on how to manage a household and how to be a good wife. What Thomas does instead is to challenge Caroline to write a different kind of "how-to" guide: one on sex and marriage. It is a shockingly improper proposal made to any lady -- but it is even more shocking, considering that Caroline was a vicar's wife. But Thomas's reason isn't to scandalise society, but to inform it.
The conversation between Caroline and Thomas is very candid ... and very true: many women (then and now) enter into sexual relations with very little information. The finished manuscript that Alice and Thomas have carefully put together is considered "obscene" and I can't help but wonder why. Again, it is a jarring reminder of how limited women's roles were in that time and how very little power they had. (Also, how controlled expression and opinion was during that time.)
Of my work for Mr. Cathcart-Ross I said nothing. I had several close friends in the village, close enough that I had told them about my book of household management. Since my return from London, they had asked me, any number of times, if I'd had any news. If I'd found a publisher. Part of me longed to confide in them, not least because I wasn't at all certain my knowledge of marital relations was sufficiently comprehensive for the task at hand. With the different perspective of other women I might ensure accuracy, and thereby better serve my readers.
But it would be folly to breathe so much as a word, even the merest syllable, of what I was doing. ...
- Caroline, Improper Proposals, Chapter 4
2. It's a celebration of relationships --
All three relationships were started by consenting adults. They knew it was for pleasure and they understood that nothing would come of it (and they were fine with their arrangement). At the end, they would part ways and that would be that, but the relationships were never meaningless or mindless. In Alice and Caroline's stories, the sex ran parallel to something greater ... something more.
Too often, relationships in stories are one-sided and it is mostly the hero who calls the shots, but, here, Ross's characters have equal power, control and say in what happened as their relationships developed and deepened. I loved reading the scenes were Caroline and Thomas would discuss and edit her book, and Alice and Eli were such a great climbing team.
"Let's keep on until we reach the Col de Louvie, then stop to eat there. Will give you a chance to admire the view."
"Is it nicer than at the Col Termin?"
We reached the pass a half hour later. Though the surrounding summits loomed far overhead, their peaks lost in the advancing clouds, we had climbed higher than I'd ever imagined possible, so far that the valleys we'd left behind had become indistinct swaths of green and brown. From where we stood I could see no road, no structure, no evidence at all of civilisation. If not for the sound of an approaching party of climbers, I might have imagined Elijah and I were alone in the world.
"What do you think?" he asked softly.
"Incomparable, just as you said. ..."
- Improper Arrangements, Chapter 11
* * *
"You never said what you thought of my chapter. We haven't talked about it at all."
"We will, over dinner. Though I find it difficult to wrap my head around the subject."
"I'm certain it happens to many couples, the feeling that they are drifting apart. Any number of things can affect a marriage -- children, family pressures, financial concerns. I think it's very important that women be given some guidance on how to restore intimacy if ever it's lost."
"You're quite right. It's only that I cannot imagine how it could ever happen."
"That a couple should be pulled apart?"
"No. That I should ever lose interest in you."
It was a lovely thing for him to say, truly it was, yet I resented it. We both knew our affair would end before long, before we could hurt one another past forgiveness, so why freight the moments we had left with such sentiments? Our time together was ending, so why not embrace the sweetness, while it lasted, and save regret for another day?
- Improper Proposals, Chapter 14
This series also fetes women. It isn't completely obvious in Hannah, but Alice and Caroline are very progressive and very independent (I've used this word a lot in this review ... sorry!) -- there's nothing tentative or uncertain about them -- and I love this quality in Ross's heroines.
...I'd sworn to myself I would never be tempted again -- not by a man's pretty words and certainly not by an attractive face or form. What real need had I of a man, after all? ... I was perfectly capable of satisfying my own carnal needs without having to seek out the attention of some sweating, fumbling incompetent.
- Alice, Improper Arrangements, Chapter 1
* * *
After I had finished the Chapter and sent it off to London, I wrote to Marshall & Snelgrove's on Oxford Street and ordered a set of new undergarments. A year remained before I might begin to dress in any hue other than deepest black, but what I wore under my gown was my business alone.
- Caroline, Improper Proposals, Chapter 8
3. The writer's evolution --
I've talked about my fascination with debut novels and I've followed many authors from their debut novels up to their current works -- and it is always an enjoyable exercise to trace the author's journey in terms of theme, subject, language, focus and voice.
If I were to rate all three books*, I thought the third novella was the best in this series, and I think other readers feel the same way, judging by the ratings of the books on Goodreads. Juliana Ross has hit her stride, and she knows what she is writing about and it shines through. The third novella combines all the best elements from the first and second stories and Ross infuses it with even more.
Novellas are a tricky form to master because it is limited by its length -- but Ross's third novella did an excellent job of covering sufficient depth and breadth. By the end of the book, I was a bit surprised to see how short it was because Improper Proposals was able to convey the full romantic experience.
When I visited Ross's website, I was pleased to know that she is currently working on a full-length novel. Yay! I'm looking forward to reading that one. ^_^
To find out more about Juliana Ross and her books, click below:
*So here's how I rate each book:
Improper Relations = 3 stars
Improper Arrangements = 4 stars
Improper Proposals = 5 stars