The Chick: Penelope Brown. When a handsome aristocrat, with whom she'd only flirted with before, asks for her hand in marriage, no one is more surprised than she when she says yes.
The Rub: Despite her growing affection for her husband, she fears she'll never be anything but a vulgar, emotional Cit - hardly the sophisticated, gently-bred lady that Nev deserves.
Dream Casting: Hayley Atwell.
The Dude: Nathaniel Arthur Delaval Ambrey, formerly Viscount Nevinstoke, now Earl Bedlow, a.k.a. "Nev." When his father dies, leaving the family deeply in debt, Nev proposes marriage to a wealthy heiress.
The Rub: Sadly, marriage doesn't solve all of his problems - can he fix his estate and still keep his wife happy?
Dream Casting: Northanger Abbey's J.J. Feild.
Nev: Crap, I need money! Want to get married?
Nev: Excellent! What could possibly go wrong?
Former Mistress: *takes ill*
Tenants: *seditious mutterings*
Sir Jasper, Nev's Neighbour: Did you really just ask that question?
Nev: Crap! And on top of that, my wife hates me because I'm such a hopeless failure!
Penelope: Crap! And on top of that, my husband doesn't love me because I'm an unsophisticated Cit!
Sir Jasper: Easy solution! *tries to murder Penelope*
Nev: Hands off my wife!
Penelope: Oh, Nev, you're so sexy when you take charge!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Marriage of Convenience
1 Fatal Duel
1 Inconvenient Mistress
Several Unsatisfied Tenants
1 Precocious Sibling
1 Almost Elopement
6 Insulting Engravings
1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
1 Use of Condiment for Erotic Purposes
The Word: I'm going to have to thank Ana from The Booksmugglers for recommending this book. Or, more accurately, she suggested me to Rose Lerner, who very kindly sent me a free copy of In For a Penny, her debut novel. As it turns out, I have to thank her for more than just a free book.
I'm going to have to thank her for writing such a delightful, thought-provoking and detailed historical romance that defies the pervasive notions in other romance novels that Fantasy trumps Narrative, Realistic Problems are Boring, and that Life is Perfect when you're in Love.
Lord Nevinstoke, known as "Nev" to his bros, is a typical man of his class and time, but a good man for all that. He's a jolly fellow who drinks frequently, plays cards, races curricles, attends the theatre, and hangs out with his mistress, Amy. He's not a saint, but he's hardly a Duke of Slut. While dropping in at a party, he trades quips with a pretty young heiress named Penelope Brown before being called away.
However, his charmed life comes to a halt when his father, Earl Bedlow, is killed in a drunken duel. All at once, the easygoing Nev is forced to assume the heavy burden of responsibility made even weightier by the discovery that his irresponsible sire left the family bankrupt. Out of options, he returns to that same woman he flirted with, offering his hand in marriage. Her fortune in return for his title. Penelope shocks them both by saying yes.
However, that is hardly the end of troubles for our two protagonists. Everyone knows that Nev married Penelope for her fortune and many of his noble friends and relatives look down on her as a Cit (short for citizen, or middle-class woman unrelated to a title). Furthermore, after their marriage, Nev and Penelope head down to his ancestral seat of Loweston and discover an estate in shambles, starving and resentful tenants, unscrupulous churchmen, and a manipulative, power hungry neighbour named Sir Jasper.
More than that, however, our protagonists also have to contend with themselves. Lerner so wonderfully captures the history and the social themes of the period, and channels that into her characters. Our protagonists are definitely people of their time, but remain sympathetic, identifiable human beings. Many times in lesser romances, our protagonists come ready-made with 21st century beliefs and behaviours and spend most of the narrative fighting against the barbaric 19th century norms.
Nev represents the ultimate hypocrisy of the aristocracy in the 19th century - a class designed to wield the majority of the nation's wealth while simultaneously believing that handling money is vulgar. Nev is good-hearted, well-intentioned, and smart in his own way but he's hopelessly out of his element whenever money is concerned and this brings him no little shame as he discovers the extent of his estate's decay. Confronted by new feelings of worthlessness and incompetence, Nev goes to some rather extreme measures to distance himself from his father's reckless example - such as breaking it off with his BFFs Thirkell and Percy.
While feelings of being a good-for-nothing are new to Nev, Penelope has had to struggle with them all her life. As part of the upwardly mobile middle-class, Penelope's been trained to aspire to a class that will never truly accept her. Her father's money bought her fancy clothes and an expensive education, but she was continually bullied at her girls' school for being a Cit. She fights with an iron-bound determination to be ladylike in all respects but is eternally tormented by the conviction that she will never be good enough.
Nev and Penelope like each other almost immediately but have to struggle with their feelings of inferiority. The fact that their marriage was based on a financial agreement is one of the hugest hurdles. Nev loves Penelope but despairingly believes that he's paid her back in poor coin, that she traded her dowry in return for an irresponsible failure of a husband. Meanwhile, their marriage of convenience convinces Penelope that she has nothing to offer except money. She certainly doesn't believe she's pretty, sophisticated, or ladylike enough to have attracted Nev on her own.
However, that is not only what the protagonists go through. Instead of focusing on repetitive internal monologuing, Rose Lerner brings out these themes by providing realistic, well-researched external obstacles that engage the internal struggles our protagonists wrestle with. The dilapidation of Loweston is excellently described, as well as the very real work and expense needed to bring it back up to snuff. Really, the depth and the amount of detail in this book puts so many lesser historical romances to shame. Many blue-blooded romance heroes are anachronistically blessed with superb mathematical acumen or a gift for manipulating the stock exchange that explains why they can waste their time drinking and whoring while their tenants miraculously remain well-fed.
But oh, the realism in In For a Penny just makes the narrative that much stronger and the romance that much more potent. Some readers want their romance to be a puppies-and-rainbows fantasy but I always prefer it when a romance blooms despite realistic adversity. I adored the protagonists because I understood them despite the historical differences.
Nev is adorable, a sweetheart through and through. He's very much a jovial Beta from the Georgette Heyer model, but he always wants to do the right thing and improve himself as a person, and when he comes into his own and learns to stand up for himself, it is a delicious development indeed. Similarly - I would have hated Penelope in a lesser romance. Gee, a heroine who refuses to believe the hero loves her despite his constant protestations to the contrary? But here, I understood her distressing upbringing, the pain inherent in being too hoity-toity for the peasants but too vulgar for the aristos. I empathized with all she tried to hide about herself in order to be a perfect lady. Their romance is sweet and affectionate and the lust is downplayed - but there still is sex involved, sex that, like the rest of this romance, isn't fantasy-perfect but still lovely and satisfying.
It sounds so trite to say that In For a Penny is a breath of fresh air, but it fits the bill. YES, there can be realism in a romance. YES, there can be heroes who aren't muscle-bound cavemen in cravats. YES, there can be real problems in a narrative that don't come with easy solutions. In many ways, In For A Penny reminds me of the best of Mary Balogh - both authors write their narratives to fit into their historical periods, rather than the other way around.
What do you MEAN Lerner's next book, Lily Among Thorns, isn't out until 2011?!