Desert Isle Keeper
Sweet Disorder sees the very welcome return to the publishing world of Rose Lerner, whose two previous novels, In for a Penny and A Lily Among Thorns I enjoyed very much.
This book, the first in a series set in the town of Lively St. Lemeston, presents us with a different take on the Regency Romance and paints a wonderful portrait of small-town life in early nineteenth century England. The hero is the son of an earl, it’s true, but the heroine is most definitely an “ordinary” woman, who, like many of the other townsfolk, is struggling to make ends meet while she is also caring for her sister, helping her brother-in-law to run the town newspaper and doing her bit for the local charities and organisations.
The setting is refreshingly different as the novel takes place around the General Election of 1812. Lively St. Lemeston is controlled by the Tories, although it’s been a close-run thing in the past, and the Whigs are hopeful that this time, their candidate, the youngest son of Lord and Lady Tassell, is going to secure a victory for them. The campaign is close fought, and things are going to come down to a mere handful of votes, two of which are in the possession of Mrs Phoebe Sparks, the widow of the town’s former newspaper publisher. Of course, this is the nineteenth century, so Phoebe cannot actually vote herself, but because her father was a freeman of the town, she holds his votes “in trust”, so to speak, and they can only be used by her husband, should she remarry. Naturally, both sides are eager to see her wed to a man of their political persuasion in order to secure her votes.
Wanting to see Mrs Sparks safely wed to a Whig, Lady Tassell, a veteran political campaigner and a woman who invariably puts politics before her family, sends her middle son, Nicholas, to Lively St. Lemeston so that he can meet the potential husband she has selected and do everything he can to promote the match. Nick, who has recently returned from the war in Spain with a debilitating injury to his leg, can think of nothing worse than to have to get involved with politicking and refuses to go, until his mother threatens to cut off his allowance. Nick has had no opportunity or inclination to think about alternative sources of income – so he has no alternative but to agree to do his mother’s bidding and play matchmaker.
When he arrives and sees Phoebe’s pretty face and voluptuous body, he realises that playing matchmaker might be a much more difficult task than he’d thought.
Phoebe has no desire to remarry, and certainly not for the sake of political expediency. Her marriage had been …not unhappy in the early days, but things had soured so that in the year before her husband’s death, things between them had not been going well. She’s strong, independent, speaks her mind, and has a quick temper – but she’s also exhausted most of the time, worried about not having enough money, and continually contending with her mother’s very vocal disapproval.
In spite of that, she is enjoying the independence of widowhood – until her younger sister drops the bombshell that she is pregnant and can’t marry the father.
Helen’s condition puts a completely different complexion on Phoebe’s situation as well. If Helen remains unwed, it will be impossible for her to remain in Lively St. Lemeston to have her baby without being branded a whore, so Phoebe suggests an alternative. She will take Helen away somewhere she can have the baby and they will find a good family to take the child in and raise it as their own. But for this, she will need money, something which is in terribly short supply.
There is only one thing she can do. If she agrees to marry one of the men being put forward by the two political parties, her husband will help her to protect Helen and provide the money they need.
During the course of her “courtship” by the man the Whigs have put forward, Phoebe is thrown much into the company of Nick Dymond, who is handsome, charming, easy to talk to and who goes out of his way to help her whenever he can. Phoebe knows it’s wrong to lust after one man while planning to marry another, but she can’t help it. Nick understands her in a way nobody ever has, and, even though it’s only for a little while, she knows that here is someone she can lean on.
The romance that develops between them is based on much more than lust and physical attraction (although there’s plenty of that, too, and the sex scenes are hot!) Despite the vast difference in their social station, Nick and Phoebe interact as equals, they communicate very well and find themselves telling each other things, their sorrows, hopes and fears, that they’ve never told anyone else. Their relationship progresses at a natural pace and it’s certainly not all plain sailing, something which only serves to add more realism to their romance.
All the characters in the book are extremely well-drawn and in fact, I can’t think of a single minor character who didn’t seem to have a life of their own, from Betsy, the assistant in the sweet shop to Mr Gilchrist, the Tory election agent. The writing flows well, the background research has clearly been meticulous, the dialogue is excellent and the characterisation of the two principals is superb. Nick and Phoebe are complicated, flawed and very real characters, both of them having to cope with difficult family relationships and issues relating to their sense of self-esteem. Phoebe has been criticised by her mother all her life and Nick is finding it difficult to accept and adjust to his disability and to deal with the emotional scars he carries from the war. As a result, both of them have a slightly distorted view of their own self-worth, and it’s lovely to see both of them coming to terms with their issues and also to begin to like themselves as a result of the way the other sees them.
Sweet Disorder is a very engaging and well-told romance which is interwoven with some fascinating insight into the political situation of the time. I especially enjoyed the fact that this was essentially a story about ordinary people with ordinary problems – not enough money, controlling mothers, unplanned pregnancies – things I’m sure that many people today can identify with. The ending felt absolutely right for Nick and Phoebe, and more importantly, it felt thoroughly deserved, given everything they’d been through to get there. Rose Lerner is definitely an author to watch, and I’ll certainly be adding her name to my auto-buy list.