Heat Factor: A little bit of feisty bedroom action in an otherwise very gentle book
Character Chemistry: So. Much. Angst.
Plot: How to buck oppressive expectations + Interrogating gendered expectations
Overall: I expected this book to make me cry, and it totally did not.
This book is absolutely perfect for a book club. I cannot tell you how much I want to discuss the themes of this book with a group of people who would also be interested in meaningfully discussing them. I want to talk about all of the questions in the book club discussion section at the end of the book. I am very annoyed that I read this book by myself because now I don’t have that.
Did I like the book? Well, that’s an entirely different question, isn’t it?
Before I get started, please just don’t with any “it’s not realistic” because all that’s doing is demonstrating a serious lack of historical understanding, as well as a lack of understanding of how fiction works.
As I was reading this book, I was texting my fellow Smut Reporters for little check-ins because, for one, Ingrid is really good at psychology and for two, Holly read Something Fabulous with me and could understand some of the parallels I was drawing, and finally, we have been discussing gentle romance and emotional responsibility amongst ourselves A LOT lately. This book is throwing a ton of stuff at the reader, so if you’re already interrogating emotional responsibility and gendered expectations in your personal life, you might a) really feel connected to this story or b) really feel like it’s a lot on top of everything else. The fact that I already wanted to discuss some of these things as I was reading is, to me, a great indicator that this would be an excellent discussion book, and honestly, so does the fact that I had big enough feelings while reading to have rationality check-ins with the Smut Reporters. But I also didn’t connect with the book emotionally in a swoony or heart-eyes way because I was very busy having my brain process all the arguments being thrown at me.
I usually devour an Alexis Hall book, but this one was slower-paced and a slow read for me. In the first third or so, we’re focused on Viola hiding her identity from Gracewood, who has been depressed and suffering from PTSD since Waterloo and the loss of his best friend there. This section was too much for me. The level of “I have no right to ask this of you, but still I want to” was exceptionally frustrating, and I wanted to yell, “JFC, just own your damn feelings already, not everything needs to be an emotional burden!” For example, the following conversation might not be at all objectionable on its own, but what if nearly every conversation the protagonists had up to this point had almost all the same emotional beats?
“I would have said I was proud of you too, but it seemed presumptuous.”
“And now I feel I fished for your praise.”
“Not at all— I wanted to tell you how… how I admire what you’re doing. I just couldn’t find the words.”
In fairness to the characters, Viola is struggling with keeping secret the fact that she has a whole history with Gracewood as her former identity, and Gracewood is struggling with his perceived weakness in showing his emotional hurts to Viola. It makes sense that they’re dancing around each other a little bit, but also, it’s kind of like being on the Twitter TL where someone is clearly trying to put every imaginable caveat out up front so they don’t get pilloried for making a simple statement. Which is exhausting.
In the second third of the book, we’ve got the fallout from Gracewood’s discovery of the entirety of Viola’s identity. I found this section to be extremely engaging, not least because Viola and Gracewood finally stopped dancing around each other and just started talking to each other. After having a big fight. I read Gracewood’s side of that argument differently than Hall envisioned it (and I believe this because of the way the argument pans out, and who takes responsibility for what, and who is expected to take responsibility for what), which caused a whole other conversation with the Smut Reporters about emotional responsibility and how we should or shouldn’t take ownership of emotional hurts. But the characters were able to move forward, so I did, too, and the way they negotiated a new relationship had me on the edge of my seat.
Then came the final third of the book, and, you know, characters had been introduced, and I knew that something was coming, but what actually came was something of a surprise. A little bit bananas, but then it’s Alexis Hall, so why shouldn’t it be a little bananas? The resolution of Gracewood’s and Viola’s relationship was also really lovely. (With the added benefit of not belaboring and angsting over their options or lack thereof in the latter half of the book.) And Hall actually included an epilogue, which is very unusual for him, but which I really appreciated in view of all of the hopes these two had for their future in a space where achieving those hopes was not necessarily assured, even as we could see the possibilities before us.
If you want to read a deliberately progressive historical romance novel, I think I really would recommend reading this one. I still have very mixed feelings about the book for myself, but I absolutely do not regret reading it, and I only wish I had read it with friends so I could hash out all my thoughts and process all these ideas running through my head.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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