Desert Isle Keeper
Rose Lerner has been an autobuy author for me ever since I read her début novel, In for a Penny. While she sets her stories in the Regency era, she tends to move away from the glittering ballrooms of the ton and puts a different spin on them, whether it be, as in Penny, looking at a young couple trying to make a marriage of convenience work amid the problems they encounter in trying to put a run-down estate back on its feet, or, as in Sweet Disorder, setting a cross-class romance against the backdrop of the machinations and corruptions of small-town politics.
True Pretenses returns to Lively St. Lemeston, where the daughter of Lord Wheatcroft, the leader of the town’s Tories, is trying to work out how she is going to be able to maintain the family’s political influence in the town following her father’s recent death. Lydia Reeve’s younger brother James has shown little to no interest in politics, which worries her no end, as she won’t be able to maintain the family interest without access to family funds. (This was, of course, a period at which not everyone had the vote, and many of those who did expected some sort of financial recompense in return for their support.)
Asher Cohen and his younger brother Rafe are doing a bunk following their latest successful confidence trick when Rafe drops a bombshell. He is no longer content with their indigent, ignoble manner of living and wants to settle down into a more “ordinary” life. Ash is devastated. He has spent the entire twenty-five years of his brother’s life looking after him; caring for a baby when little more than a child himself, doing his best to make sure that Rafe had everything he ever needed or wanted… but as he’s always done, Ash puts himself second and determines to help Rafe to find a way to a better life.
Arrived in Lively St. Lemeston, Ash learns about Lydia – a lovely, marriageable young woman with a sizeable income and a mind of her own and immediately thinks that he’s found the perfect solution to the problem. Rafe will marry her and that will see him comfortably settled for life.
Nobody is more surprised than Ash when he proves to be the proverbial spanner in the works himself, and Miss Reeve shows a marked partiality for him instead of Rafe. Now aged thirty and having been her father’s hostess since she was seventeen, Lydia has been the person to whom everyone goes when anything needs doing, and it’s clear that while she’s been looking after everyone and everything, nobody has really been looking after her. So when, for the first time in her life, someone pays attention to her rather than focusing on what she can do for them and tells her that it’s okay to want things for herself, she finds it both heady and rather bewildering.
Rose Lerner has woven a story of such intricacy and complexity that it’s difficult to say much more about it without including too many spoilers. On the surface, it’s a story in which not much actually happens – or rather, there are no momentous events (until close to the end). But beneath that it’s a story about family and the importance of acceptance and belonging. Lydia and Ash’s relationships with their respective siblings are complicated and messy and real – and they have both spent most of their lives defining themselves in terms of those relationships. James’ and Rafe’s wish to make their own way in life forces both Ash and Lydia to re-evaluate and re-define themselves, and the same is true of the two principals, who also have to take a good look at themselves as the result of their feelings for one another.
In Ash, Ms Lerner has created one of the most complicated, unusual heroes I’ve ever read. He’s incredibly kind, pragmatic and genuinely interested in people and in the life that goes on around him; as he says himself several times, he likes everybody. But then, he’s made a life out of deception, so it’s in his best interest to appear to be all those things, which causes much conflict in the story. While she wants desperately to believe him – and so does the reader – there are times when Lydia can’t help but wonder if Ash’s interest in her and in the community and his desire to help are real, or simply his way of ingratiating himself and getting what he wants from her before he disappears from her life.
The other major factor in the story is that Ash is Jewish, although for most of his life he has passed as a Gentile. While being a Jew at that time in history would probably not have led to physical abuse or even made much difference to his financial situation or his marriage, he would almost certainly have been subjected to a lot of prejudice and bigotry, and Ash, being the sort of man he is, has decided he’d rather not lay himself open to that sort of treatment. As he says late on in the book:
“If I told everyone I was Jewish, it would be the same life, with the same people, except that everything would be more difficult, and I’d have to hear them do and say things that would make it hard to like them.”
At one point in the book, Ash disentangles a pile of embroidery threads, and then later goes on to think about all the tangled threads pulling at his heart. Well, Ms Lerner has taken all her threads and woven them skilfully together to produce a truly extraordinary story, and one quite unlike any historical romance I’ve ever read. She tackles some complicated subjects (politics and religion) takes a good look at the lives of the townsfolk, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, and also works in a sub-plot concerning a pair of young children in the local workhouse, which has many parallels in Ash’s story – and she does it all without taking the focus away from the central characters and the development of their romance. While there are some darker aspects to the story – Ash and Rafe had a very tough childhood and the prejudice they have encountered is nasty – the overall impression I came away with was one of optimism. These people have to work for what they want, but that makes it all the sweeter when their hard work pays off.
The author’s writing style is direct but considered, her characters are strongly drawn; none of them perfect but all the more real for their imperfections – and her knowledge of the history and attitudes of the period are clearly extensive.
True Pretenses is a wonderful book, and one I’ll definitely be re-reading in the not too distant future.