Late last year, I read Sarah Wendell’s (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books co-creator) Must-Reads of 2011. The top of her list was a book released on December 27, 2011: Cecilia Grant’s debut novel, A Lady Awakened. Not only did Wendell say it was tops for 2011, but “among the best historical romances I have ever read.” I IMMEDIATELY pre-ordered the book and began reading it as soon as I received it.
Here is the premise of the book, from Grant’s website:
Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate—and housemaids—from a predatory brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes… for a fee.
Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all… love?
Grant’s writing is smooth like butter. Sometimes when I am reading her work, I find myself re-reading sentences out loud because I like the sound of them, the way it rolls off my tongue, how it evokes emotions, and says so much in so few words. Sometimes I am so struck by the ease of her writing that I can’t do anything but laugh at the cleverness of it. For example, after Martha propositions Theo in A Lady Awakened, they have the following exchange while he is determining if he is going to do what she asks:
“Then why do this?” He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. “Why not go to your brother at once?”
Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. “Because that is not what I choose to do.” The words had such clean edges, she might have sliced them on a tiny guillotine.”
Such clean edges.
After reading A Lady Awakened, I did what it is I do: I got on Twitter, found Cecilia’s handle, and blasted her feed with lots and lots of praise. We have since become Twitter and Facebook friends and she did the coolest thing for me recently: she sent me an advanced copy of her newest book, A Gentleman Undone, which comes out May 29. Here is the picture I took of myself with the book minutes after ripping away the box in which it came:
I have to say, I was nervous about receiving this book ahead of time for two different reasons (though related): 1) I loved her debut and you never know if sophomore attempts are going to hold up to level you are now expecting and 2) I was going to have to give Cecilia some type of feedback and I didn’t want to have to lie.
THANKFULLY, Ms. Grant wrote a book so good that I may love it more than I did A Lady Awakened.
Here is the premise (again, from Cecilia’s website):
Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London’s gentlemen’s clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm’s length.
A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind with a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with unspoken promise of fleshly delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.
I wrote Cecilia a note about halfway through my complete devouring of this book. I had just read a scene that literally made my heart hurt (Cecilia assured me that she is doing her job well if that is my reaction).
Lydia and Will desperately desire one another (possibly love one another by this point) but their circumstances make their relationship impossible. Her protector is hosting a house party in the country and has invited Will, who does decide to attend, even though he and Lydia on not on the best of terms and have not spoken for nearly two weeks. Not long after he arrives, Lydia goes on a walk of the grounds, where she spies Will standing on a cliff in the driving wind. They have a conversation that leads to this moment:
He dropped his glance to the ground between them, and his voice dropped likewise. “You have ample reason to be vain, where I am concerned. But surely you remarked that for yourself.”
A fresh gust of wind drove her cloak against the back of her legs and carried her wet hem into contact with his boots. His coat billowed out behind him.
“You know I’d like to be your lover.” He spoke just loudly enough to be heard over the flapping of their garments. “I have been, in my dreams, more than once.”
“But you can’t. I know.” Her voice sank to match his.
“But I won’t.” He raised his eyes again. The wind was blowing full into his face but he didn’t turn aside. “I want to be something different to you. I want to be someone…” His eyes cut past her to some horizon where the rest of his thought must lie. “Someone you can trust. Not only at cards.”
Now she was the one to look away, down to where the edge of her windblown skirt still lingered about his boots like an emissary for the rest of her, a scout demonstrating how easily the gap between them might be bridged. “Don’t hope for that.” She dug her fingers into the folds of her cloak. “It’s not something that I can give.”
He nodded once, still gazing past her. His shoulders rose and fell with a great breath, and she knew beyond any doubt that he was letting go of a hope that had meant much to him.
Oh, these characters. By this point you want so much for them to be together and yet you cannot see how that is possible. Painful.
Grant is a master at pushing the story forward until the end (in both novels, despite knowing – believing – that somehow these characters would end up together, I was unsure until almost the very end how it would happen). She writes the most amazing sex scenes: many in A Lady Awakened were full of uncomfortable moments that make you feel how weird Theo and Martha’s arrangement would have been and how tightly closed Martha’s emotions and heart were from her physical body; in A Gentleman Undone, when we finally get the first sex scene between Lydia and Will, it is not ideal and the joy we expect is not present (and rightly so).
Grant does not force a story to go where it shouldn’t, doesn’t allow characters easy outs for sake of a specific narrative, and doesn’t tie up all the strings into a pretty bow. These people make sacrifices, they navigate the space they are allotted, and they do their imperfect best.
Cecilia Grant has written two amazing books and I cannot wait (CANNOT WAIT) until her next novel arrives on shelves.