from our DIK review:Ms. Grant’s excellent debut should really be titled A Lady and a Gentleman Awakened. Both the heroine, repressed Martha, and the hero, feckless Theo, are, by this novel’s end, alert to possibilities unimaginable to both prior to their relationship. In A Lady Awakened, opposites don’t merely attract; two strongly disparate people are transformed into a singular pair.Martha Russell is twenty-one, childless, and recently freed by a riding accident from an unhappy marriage to a drunkard. She is prepared to leave the home in which she’s lived for the past year, her husband’s family seat, Seaton Park, and dutifully move in with one of her married siblings when she discovers her husband’s heir is a selfish lech who, in the past, molested the female staff at Seaton Park. When the family solicitor points out the inheritance isn’t settled until it’s clear Martha’s not pregnant, Martha, a woman so virtuous it’s wearing, begins to think of defrauding her seedy brother-in-law out of the estate.Martha decides to approach Theophilus (Theo) Mirkwood, a young man recently moved into the estate next door. Theo has been sent to rusticate in the country by his father who is justifiably concerned at Theo’s careless, irresponsible life in London. As Theo explains, the crowning blow was Theo’s “expenditure of two months’ allowance to buy a single snuff box from Sèvres” which, he acknowledges, was “Wasteful, in fact, and foolish in the extreme. Particularly given that I don’t use snuff.” Martha offers to pay Theo to bed her; the two will have sex every afternoon until it’s clear she has or hasn’t conceived.Theo, after a bit of thought and a peek or two down Martha’s bodice, says yes. He sees the offer as a way to have safe sex with a pretty young widow and, though he’s the heir to a fortune, his funds are currently low. He’s unconcerned about his part in the fraud — this, like most things, Theo sees as not his problem. Martha suggests the two begin immediately — time is of the essence literally here — and their relationship begins.I’ve rarely read a more uncomfortable encounter than the first between Theo and Martha – or, as Martha insists, Mrs. Russell and Mr. Mirkwood. Martha loathes sex, intimacy, seduction, and at first, Theo. She envisions a month of lying perfectly still, suffering through Theo’s distasteful and, she hopes, hurried thrusts. Theo, on the other hand, is a sensualist. He adores sex, women’s glorious naked bodies, and casual easy intimacy. Thus, once he realizes Martha’s intent to render sex into unpleasant duty, he can barely perform. It’s only by —and this is character development genius on the part of Ms. Grant — imagining Martha as an engaged, passionate participant in bed, can he deliver “the first installment of her purchase.”The next afternoons are no better. Theo tries to woo Martha by telling her how lovely she is. Martha finds these declarations repugnant. Theo attempts to coax passion out of her body. Martha shrinks away from even a kiss. The sex, for the first week they are together, is awful.However, the two do more in bed than toil. They talk and, slowly, begin to learn first about, then from one another. What seems in Martha to be dull morality shows itself to Theo — and to the reader — as a powerful, even engaging desire to improve the lives of the poor. Theo’s casual approach to life hides a fine mind and, once he sees the destitution of those who live on his and Martha’s lands, Theo begins to apply himself to improve a world he’d never before noticed. Their conversations turn into collaborations and, within a few weeks of knowing each other, the two are working together to care for their lands and tenants. And, of course, their connection outside the bedroom begins to shape the one within.
Grade: A-Check Review