Sunday, January 4, 2015

ARC Review: True Pretenses by Rose Lerner


Click here to pre-order the book on Amazon. Release date: January 13, 2015

It's hard to talk about this book without spoiling it, because it is such an intricately-written story. Lerner has taken a number of plot threads and tackled them in her story.
- sibling dynamics
- values, friendship and political drama in a small town
- a marriage of convenience and how love figures into it
- Jews (and Catholics) and the Church of England
- orphans and workhouses

This is a story with a lot of texture and emotion: at the beginning of the story, Lerner shows how deeply invested Ash and Lydia are in their younger siblings and how devastating it is when Rafe and Jamie decide to make their own way in the world. They've long defined themselves by the purpose they served to Rafe and Jamie, and, now that that's gone, Lydia and Ash are both forced to redefine their identities.

He had brought Rafe up to take him for granted, to believe him strong and capable and impervious to the world's blows. He had wanted his brother to feel safe, as he himself never had. Fear, anxiety, illness, sadness -- he'd protected Rafe with fierce care from them all. It seemed bitterly unfair that this was his reward.
- loc 63

Ash's clothes are always a bit rumpled and ill-fitting, as though they were not meant for him to wear. It's a great parallel for his place in society: to avoid discrimination/persecution, Ash has had to hide his Jewish heritage and has pretended to be Church of England for as long as he could remember. He never says it, but, I think this was a turning point for Ash -- if he was going to live his life fooling people into thinking he was something he wasn't, he was going to live his life fooling people period, and he has been quite successful in both enterprises.

The fine thing about the country, unlike London, was that no one knew enough about Jews to know when they were looking at one. Give a false Christian name, and he was safe as houses.
- loc 232

It's hard to describe Lydia Reeve's role in Lively St. Lemeston. Her family has served as the Tory patron of their town for generations, and Lydia, herself, served as her father's political hostess since she was 17. We get to peer into Lydia's mind quite a bit, and she's constantly thinking about everyone -- about the upcoming Gooding Day auction, about the forthcoming winter and new coats for the children at the workhouse, about Parliament and her brother taking his seat, about her correspondences with fellow Tories, and about how she could afford to remain the patron of their party now that her brother has announced that he was not interested in taking over their father's role and responsibility in their town.

Lydia was in danger of becoming a flat character, but I realised that this was part of her tragedy -- she had always been the one who took care of everyone. My impression was she was the go-to girl for anyone who needed anything done, but no one seemed to be taking care of her. It's such a subtle, but quite powerful shift when Ash enters her life. For the first time in Lydia's life, someone was paying very, very close attention to her (Granted, it was, initially, for less-than-honest intentions), and for the first time, Lydia is forced to pay attention to herself and her needs.

"You don't owe these people this. Don't sell yourself so cheaply. You're worth more. I thought you would be happy with my brother."

Tears pricked unexpectedly at her eyes, that he would say that. She blinked them away. "I'm glad you think you know who to set a just price on me," she said dryly. "But I don't consider that I am selling my self at all. I am choosing to do what I must to get what I want. ..."
- loc 1567

Ash and Rafe Cahill are swindlers who have conned their way through England. Ash has never thought to live any other life but the one they have, but, when Rafe announces that he wants out and plans to join the army, Ash is forced to reassess their situation. Ever the hustler, Ash has figured out a way to keep Rafe safe: he'll find Rafe a wife and make certain he settles down into a nice, quiet life. When Ash hears about Lydia Reeve and her circumstances, he knows he's found his mark. Unlike their previous swindles, this one held a bit more significance for Ash, because he was doing it for Rafe -- and it wasn't for a short-term goal this time, but for life. It isn't surprising that Ash gets emotionally involved in his own situation. It's frightening just how easily Ash slips into his role and there was always, always a tug of war between sincere honesty (the redundancy is intended) and dishonesty -- is he saying all this to get what he wants? What does Ash want anyway?

He was full of small kindnesses, and if they were calculated, she didn't think that made them less kind.
- loc 2853

Because they are so deeply personal, religion and politics we are told to avoid them as topics in conversations, but Rose Lerner has decided to tackle both in her novel, True Pretenses. It's a lot of very important things to talk about in a novel, but, instead of the tangled mess of strings that Ash describes in the novel (Chapter 14, loc 2357), Lerner has deftly woven all these elements into a most glorious tapestry.

True Pretenses got me thinking how some other stories seem to put the hero and heroine in a vacuum: letting the world fade into the background, while allowing the main characters to explore and deepen their relationship without much distraction or interruption, so I don't know how Rose Lerner did it. She was able to talk about everything in depth without taking the focus away from her central characters: Lerner even revisits characters from the first book, Sweet Disorder, and we see Phoebe, Jack and Caroline Sparks still contend with bills, the press, and, for Caroline, her strange situation as a Tory married to a Whig. (It's wonderful to see them continue with their lives -- while they are all happy and settled, their stories haven't really ended yet.)

There's also Mary, a young girl from the workhouse and her younger sister, Joanna. Mary's situation mirrors that of Lydia and Ash's. Lerner really has written about the world and was able to put it into a "nutshell" (being 305 pages) -- and, while the world of Lively St. Lemeston isn't all rainbows and sunshine, it also isn't about gloom and misery either. There is an optimistic undertone to the story, but the characters must work, strive, and sacrifice to attain this goal.

This is a romance novel unlike any other romance novel that you've read before: it's a page-turner, not because there's something exciting happening, but because there's something important happening. There's a quiet thoughtfulness to Lerner's writing, but the message she conveys is resoundingly clear: the world of Lively St. Lemeston isn't perfect and the characters aren't paragons, but there's beauty and value in their flaws and imperfections -- and there's a story to every wrinkle, crease, smudge and tear.

One caveat: I've had the benefit of reading Sweet Disorder, and I wonder how True Pretenses would read as a stand-alone.

This is book 2 in Rose Lerner's Lively St. Lemeston series. To find out more about the author and her books, click below:
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Disclosure: I requested this ARC through Netgalley. Thank you to Rose Lerner and Samhain Publishing for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.

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