Listen to the Moon
In this, the third book in Rose Lerner’s series of books set in the fictional Sussex town of Lively St. Lemeston, the author has once again penned a thoroughly enjoyable and emotionally complex romance with nary a duke or debutante in sight. Our protagonists are a pair of servants, John Toogood, a very correct ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ and Susan (Sukey) Grimes, a maid of all work. Both have appeared briefly in earlier books in the series; John was valet to Nick Dymond, hero of Sweet Disorder and Sukey the maid who cleans the rooms occupied by its heroine who, shortly before Listen to the Moon opens, has married Nick, to the horror and intense disapproval of his mother, the Countess of Tassell.
Unfortunately, Nick’s choice of bride has had repercussions for his valet as well as himself. Cut off from his family financially, he is no longer able to afford John’s services, and because the countess is angry at John for not telling her about her son’s unsuitable attachment, she has made sure that none of the men in her circle will employ him. At a loose end, John decides to rent the new Mrs Dymond’s old rooms while he attempts to find another position, and is rather disconcerted by the sudden, strong stirrings of lust he feels for the cheeky maid who comes in to clean – not very well by John’s standards – twice a week.
The attraction may be inconvenient, but Sukey quickly makes it clear that it’s reciprocated; her first sight of the tall, dark and handsome valet almost renders her speechless, and even though she is dead set against marriage, she certainly wouldn’t mind finding out about all the good bits with him! He, however, being considerably older and more experienced than she is (he’s forty, she’s twenty-two), knows it would be wrong to take advantage of her – much as he’d like to – and puts their relationship firmly onto a footing of friendship.
Born into service – his parents are the butler and housekeeper for the Earl and Countess of Tassell – John has been brought up to serve and do the best he can for his employers. He enjoyed being a valet and having nobody to care for but himself and his master, and never wanted responsibility for a household. Yet when he hears that the local vicar requires a new butler – and given that beggars can’t be choosers – he decides the position might suit him. But there’s a snag. The vicar insists that his new butler be a married man.
So John approaches Sukey with a proposition; that they get married and go to work at the vicarage, he as butler, she as head housemaid. This seems an ideal solution for them both, and even though Sukey is initially wary, a sudden change in her circumstances leads to her agreeing and very soon the couple is newly married, newly employed and newly housed.
Rose Lerner does a fantastic job in exploring all the pitfalls and difficulties that come with marrying someone you hardly know, and also in depicting life in service. Sukey and John are newly married, but there is no lazing around in bed on the morning after their wedding night and no honeymoon for them. As servants, it’s back to work as normal; early starts, late nights, seeing each other only in passing during the day and having one half-day holiday per week. And as well as having to navigate their way through their new relationship to each other they have to forge working relationships with those around them. John never wanted to run a household and is having to make some big adjustments in his life and his self-perception while desperately trying to avoid becoming an incredibly exacting man like his father. Mr Toogood senior was known to regularly reduce the maids to tears if they didn’t meet his very high standards of work; but even so, John finds it difficult to stop himself from being critical when he considers that the staff are not doing their best for their employer.
Both John and Sukey are used to being self-sufficient and find it difficult to let someone else in, so the misunderstandings between them are not contrived, but arise naturally as a result of who they are and of the situation they are in. They realise they have problems communicating, but aren’t sure how to go about things differently. Ms Lerner also doesn’t shy away from exploring the difficulties occasioned by the eighteen-year age gap between them – both characters at one point wonder if Sukey was looking for a father figure rather than a husband, and John definitely does have problems at times treating her as a woman rather than a little girl. But then, Sukey sometimes acts like a little girl, wanting to be protected and comforted and not taking equal responsibility in spite of her protestations that she wants to be treated as an equal partner in their marriage and work.
But the thing that comes through all the problems and miscommunication is how much the two of them genuinely care for each other. Although their relationship in its early stages is founded on a spectacularly huge dose of mutual lust and they certainly enjoy a robust sex life, there is a strong undercurrent of affection running between them, even when they are frustrated or angry with each other. John and Sukey are imperfect, three-dimensional characters with real problems and insecurities, and while the romance is awkward and messy, it’s also full of understanding and a genuine desire to make things work. The writing is intelligent with plenty of humour and has a real period feel to it; the historical background is clearly well-researched but is incorporated subtly without there being the feeling that one is being given a history lesson! There are a couple of well-executed sub plots and I especially enjoyed the later part of the book which sees John struggling to reconcile his feelings of duty towards his parents with his need to make his life his own and tread the path that will make him – and Sukey – happy.
Listen to the Moon is a splendid addition to Ms Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston series and is highly recommended.