Okay okay okay. Greed for Cecilia Grant’s new book compels me to admit that this has been the year I’ve started reading romance novels. I have read enough of them now to have a pretty clear idea of what I like in a romance novel. I like historical romance novels in which the characters are constrained in interesting, specific ways by the time they live in. I like it when the primary characters each have other stuff going on, and I especially like it when the reason they like each other is that they’re impressed with some skill set the other one possesses. In Cecilia Grant’s second novel, the two main characters bonded over mutual admiration of the lady’s gift for calculating probabilities very fast in order to win like crazy at blackjack. That is a real thing. Everyone likes people who admire about them the same things they admire about themselves. Oh and also I like it when the characters talk about privilege. Who has it in what brands and whether they’re making good use of it. Those are all things I enjoy in a romance novel.
(I still feel slightly embarrassed about enjoying romance novels, which is why you will find defiant parenthetical acknowledgements of cliches sprinkled throughout this post.)
A Woman Entangled is the third of Cecilia Grant’s novels, all of which have followed a different sibling (yep) in the Blackshear (yep) family. In this one, Nick Blackshear, the barrister brother with important career plans, is trying to get past the shame of his brother having recently married a prostitute (they keep saying Cyprian, but that seems unfair to Cyprus just for having liked Aphrodite a lot in the old days). In a town across town, Kate Westbrook is trying to gain acceptance in polite society, a goal that will provide her sisters with better prospects, but one that eludes her as a result of her slightly dubious parentage (her father married an actress! horrors!). Nick’s kind of her father’s protogee, and she’s preternaturally beautiful (ugh) so the father asks him to keep an eye on her when she goes to polite society parties. You can imagine how matters go on from there.
I will tell you why I like Cecilia Grant. I like Cecilia Grant because she gives all the characters a bunch of different stuff to do. Nobody is just one thing. A Woman Entangled opens with Kate in a bookshop with her sister Viola as Viola — to Kate’s intense embarrassment — goes on to the bookseller at some length about her radical views on the Rights of Women; after which Kate goes to deliver a courteous letter to one of her father’s relations who has never acknowledged their family, and Viola refuses to go with her, but sits proudly on a bench opposite. This is already interesting because it would usually be the heroine going on about women’s rights, and being shushed by her more conventional supporting-character sister. But what’s even more interesting — to me anyway — is Kate’s awareness that dogmaticism like Viola’s doesn’t tell the whole story. There is more to the members of Kate’s extended family than this one action of declining to acknowledge her. (A point driven home, of course, by the fact that Nick, Our Hero, won’t acknowledge his brother and his ex-Cyprian sister-in-law.) Here again, Cecilia Grant could have left it alone, with Viola cloaked in adolescent righteousness and a general embarrassment to her sister. Instead, later in the book we see Viola offering Kate awesome non-judgmental support that’s completely in line with what we’ve seen of Viola so far (and itself calls into question the rule-following that Kate’s been doing all along).
That ended up being quite a long thing about a secondary character. My point is, I like it that the characters aren’t consistently right or wrong by virtue of serving as protagonists or antagonists. There isn’t even a consistent right or wrong to be had, really — Kate adores her parents, and they’re happy together but her father’s decision to marry an actress in the first place makes his children’s prospects, and especially his daughters’ prospects, dubious. Kate’s years of quiet attentiveness to her aunt and uncle, which Viola scorns and her parents don’t particularly care for either, finally do give her the opportunity to attend some events in Society, but not in exactly the capacity she had hoped.
The characters frequently have to choose one among a collection of shitty possibilities, and even the best outcomes are far from perfect. That makes me happy. Actual life is like that. Plus, consequences: Actions have them! Lydia and Will got married at the end of A Gentleman Undone, which hooray?, except that they’re shunned by most of Will’s family and have to go into trade and their children and Will’s siblings’ children are going to face some serious societal consequences. We see some of those in A Woman Entangled, and others we can infer from the difficulties Kate faces because of her parents’ unconventional marriage.
So now you know. I am quite fond of a limited number of romance authors, and Cecilia Grant is one of them.
(Oh, a small complaint: I really hate characters — in all genres — who are universally acknowledged to be breathtakingly beautiful. I don’t think that’s a thing. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Different people find different things attractive. Kate can be pretty but I’m not down with her turning all the heads.)
Disclosure: I received this e-book for review from the publisher, via NetGalley.