The Secrets of Charlotte Street, Book #3
Heat Factor: I’m way too prim and proper to tell you how smouldering this gets, but it burns
Character Chemistry: I have never been so distraught thinking that two people were doomed to be apart in my entire life, honest truth
Plot: Alice learns that her mother is at death’s door and accepts Lord Lieutenant Henry Evesham’s invitation to deliver her home as quickly as possible despite his role as an evangelical reformer tasked with investigating the sex worker trade and recommending changes. This is nuts, because Alice is currently a housekeeper in training to be a whipping girl at a house of pleasure in London…
Overall: Look, take everything you thought you knew about sex work and faith and romance novels about the above and just toss it out the window because this book is about to shake you to your BOOTS, I’m telling you
Whenever I’m asked why I love reading and reviewing romance novels, my explanation for people who JUST DON’T GET IT is this: we write and read about every facet of the human experience because it’s interesting and it stirs up feelings in us, and we like that. It’s not embarrassing if it’s a book about death or loss or adventure or courage, but when it’s a book solely focused on the human experience of falling in love, suddenly people get squicky about it, and I think that’s just completely incomprehensible. Especially because romance novels aren’t just about falling in love–for it to be satisfying, both parties have to experience a full chemical reaction. They have to face an obstacle, and they have to overcome it together. Most importantly, they both have to walk away from the experience transformed for the better. (And we in Romancelandia call that a Happily Ever After.) It’s a really big thing, which makes it interesting to read about and it’s gosh-darn satisfying as HECK.
This book, this rapturously delicious book, offers the story of the transformation of two people who are floating on their own life rafts—for one, it’s his faith. For the other, it’s the pursuit of pleasure. Neither is really 100% whole, but they know what they need in their lives and they aren’t willing to sacrifice it.
Henry is kind of a big deal because he’s been selected by the evangelical reformer head honchos to go out and examine “houses of ill repute” to see how and in what way precisely they should be reformed. And what this really means is, how do we punish people for trying to earn a living through sex work?? Because it’s all their fault. He’s also ritualistic and eschews any kind of real pleasure—no meat, no sugar, wakes up at 4 am and works out like he’s preparing to run an Ironman. He deprives himself because his faith is so important to him and is so fulfilling to him that he cannot fathom risking anything that might put that faith at risk.
Now, Alice is a young woman who left her small town to become a housekeeper for an extended relative—only she neglected to inform her mother that actually, the house is a very high end, secret and exclusive BDSM/kink club. You might think this is where the author sets Alice up as a young, naive innocent who is bravely sacrificing her reputation to protect her family. No. Alice ALWAYS happily gave in to pleasure. She just likes getting frisky in as many safe, healthy ways as possible. Also, she LOVES seeing what makes the club members fall apart. It’s something she’s honestly very proud of. For her, it’s also a bit of a life raft because she feels free—she’s no longer being used as a pawn to marry off and secure her sisters’ futures. As long as she keeps it a secret, of course.
When Alice and Henry end up on an old school road trip together, there’s really no need for any huge plot twists because they poke at each other and talk and unfold the mysteries of each other in a way that is just absolutely riveting. Henry worries about what he’s going to say in his report.
“Should laws protect the body or the soul? Reflect the highest ethics of the nation and of God, or protect its weakest parties, even if that necessitated turning a permissive eye toward sin? Surely it was closer to the spirit of Christ to be compassionate? But how could he in good conscience remove obstacles to vice?”
They both stew over a disastrous tour of the rooms Alice took Henry on. And ultimately Alice doggedly shocks Henry by cursing and being brassy—but she’s also adamant about what she believes is right for the sex workers she’s speaking for.
“Laws are made up by men. Plenty that is moral is not legal, and plenty that is legal is not right.”
At one point they both connect over how difficult it is to “love one’s parents, even when one is at odds with them”. For both of them, they come from families that don’t really see who they are or even respect them as individuals. When Alice allows Henry to care for her in her worry over her mother, Alice begins to see why Henry has such unshakeable faith.
“She had not considered that faith might fill you up, instead of limiting you. That God could lift, rather than confine. But as she watched Henry and his friends bow their heads in prayer, she could see the tranquility on their faces.”
And look, I’ll be honest—I was almost euphoric by the time Alice bursts free from the emotional shackles she’s been living with and Henry relaxes. I absolutely cannot ruin it for you, but it’s shamelessly brazen and she’s phenomenal. It’s the point at which I realized with shock that they really could not be together as they were. There was no way to honor them both as people if they went through with it.
Luckily, the author is a ridiculous talent with character development, and she helps each character shift in both big and small ways, slowly, and on their own terms. It’s just amazing.
The part that is most satisfying about the happily ever after isn’t that they end up together, it’s that they end up together and individually so…whole. There’s almost a relief that they didn’t stop seeking out the whole person they were falling in love with. And that’s really the feeling you’re left with—a deep sense of peace and happiness, just like Henry and Alice.
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