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REVIEW: A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

Dear Ms. Grant:

I don’t remember reading a book like this lately. I’m sure that there have been ones written, after all, romance has been published for decades at a clip of several hundred a month. There are no new stories, only new ways to tell them. However, Marta Russell and Theophilus Mirkwood are two characters that seemed entirely new to me; characters I hadn’t met in fiction before.

A Lady Awakened Cecilia GrantThis story read to me about two things: connections and opposites. Connections, particularly in this book, prevent seeing the world in black and white, seeing one person as wholly villianous or virtuous. The way in which the connections to people make us better and how, left to our own devices, our viewpoints and life experiences can be narrow and limited. The best part of an opposites attract story is this idea that the other can fill in where one is lacking, making the duo better than an individual. That is definitely true in “A Lady Awakened”.

The story is fairly simple. Martha Russell of Seaton Park is newly widowed and she is childless. While she regrets that she doesn’t have a child and that she will likely have to go and live off her brothers, she is prepared to do so. Her plans are forestalled by suggestion of her lady’s maid and the local clergy that everyone will need to wait to see if she had quickened before her husband’s death. The seed of fraud is fostered when Martha hears that the heir is a disreputable man who had taken advantage of the servants of the house many years ago and that her husband had shunned the heir prior to his death.

Martha learns that Theo Mirkwood has been sent down by his father after an escapade. She propositions Theo and offers to pay him money to father her a child. Theo is bemused but he is in need of money and impregnating his neighbor seems like a jolly way to pass the time until he is forgiven or he has enough money to return to town. Martha and Theo don’t think much of each either. Martha isn’t the merry widow that Theo would like her to be and Theo is far to reckless and irresponsible to appeal to Martha. Theo thinks quite a bit of his sexual prowess but Martha is unimpressed:

He was watching her, hands on his hips, satisfied to be the object of a lady’s scrutiny. “It’s all yours, darling, bought and paid for,” he said with what was probably a rakish smile.

What on earth did one say in reply to that? It wasn’t even accurate — she hadn’t paid him yet — but really, the less said on this subject, the better. Yesterday had been rather excruciating in that regard. Your skin is like silk. You smell like flowers. He must seduce chiefly on the strength of his good looks. He couldn’t expect to overcome any lady with poetic invention.

As the two spend each afternoon in bed, they begin to learn more about one another. Martha learns that Theo’s easy amiability makes it easier to connect with the tenants, to assist them in the manner in which Martha believes is important for the gentry to do. Theo learns from Martha that taking care of the land and tenants is more than a responsibility but a calling.

In reading the negative Amazon reviews, one of the negatives that is brought up is that Martha is engaging in a fraud. She is. She is trying to steal an inheritance from another person who is rumored to be a bad man. This is not without its troubling morality and is an issue that Martha acknowledges, even unto the end.

Another negative comment was that Martha is cold. She is. She is distant from others. She does not make friends easily and her lack of ability to make connections pushes her to further withdraw emotionally. But she is earnest in her desire to provide for those people around her. She feels their reliance keenly. Moreover, Martha recognizes the perilous position of a woman and seeks to set up a school wherein girls can gain an education, empowering them. Theo is distant as well, for all his amiabiity. His connections, while easily made, are superfluous.  Martha and Theo are subtle ends of an emotional spectrum.  Theo was undisciplined, but generous.   Martha was uptight, but thoughtful.

There is this great subplot involving Theo and a single laborer on his property. He learns that because the man has no family, when the man is older and can no longer work the tenant properly, he will be sent to a workhouse. It brings home to Theo how fortunate his birth and what kind of responsibility he holds in his hands. Theo has the ability to prevent Mr. Barrow from being sent to a workhouse. Theo’s transformation doesn’t come at the hands of Martha. She merely opens his eyes.

“The smaller families with older sons are fortunate,” he said as he and Granville moved along. “Two or more wages, and fewer people to divide them among.”

“The shape of your family makes a great difference, doesn’t it? I’m sorry the Weavers have no grown-up sons.” They were walking a path that followed a rail fence now, and from time to time the man rapped at some part of it, presumably to test the soundness of its joints.

“Mr. Barrow has no family at all? Not even nieces or nephews, I mean?”

“No.” This brought an extra gravity, he could see, to Granville’s weathered features. “He had sisters, I know, but they married long ago and settled somewhere far north.”

“No one to take an interest in caring for him, then.”

“It’s not as uncommon a case as one might like it to be. Reminds a man of the importance of marrying. Not a man of independent means, of course — you may look after yourself and then pay others to do so, if you choose.”

This sounded a dismal prospect. He must remember to think seriously of marriage, in five or ten years, and in the meantime, to ingratiate himself with his sisters’ children. “But Mr. Barrow,” he said. “There will come a time — soon, perhaps — when he can no longer earn a wage.”

“Aye, and after that, a time when he cannot keep house, and a time when he cannot care for himself.” Granville stopped, having found a place in the fence that did not make the proper reply to his knock. He rapped at it again, and then took out a pencil and a folded bit of paper to make some note.

Theo waited. “What happens to such a man at that time?” he said when the agent had finished.

He shook his head without looking up. “If a man does live to that age, and has no connections, like as not he ends in the workhouse infirmary.”

“Workhouse.” The one word was all he could manage.

Another negative is that the sex that Martha and Theo have is quite unsexy. This is also true. Martha hates sex initially. So much so that by the third coupling, Theo is having a difficult time even becoming aroused. The sex is actually a source of humor but it provides a marker for Martha and Theo’s intimacy. Initially the sex is horrible because neither have any feelings for another. As the two begin to like each other, the sex becomes better (although Martha begins to feel guilty about this) and then when the two fall in love, intercourse becomes both pleasureful and painful. Sex is almost a chore for both of them, something to get through in order to get to the good stuff which is the talking that they do after sex and the intimacy that grows between them because of the post coital discussions.  The sex in the book ranges from awkward to erotic, a range that I’ve rarely seen in one book.

I just appreciated so much watching Theo and Martha change, subtly, into better versions of themselves. How they found in each other something of value. There are so many wonderful small scenes in the book such as Theo watching Martha’s interaction with the vicar and thinking to himself that he wanted to see that look of admiration and respect on Martha’s face directed toward him. Or Martha learning how to make friends with Theo’s assistance.  The one small part of the story that I felt wasn’t as well integrated was Martha’s desire for a school for girls. I wasn’t convinced that her school would provide the empowerment that she desired and it lacked the flavor of the tenant / land management issues in the book. I also thought that the first three chapters started off a bit slow and I worried that Martha would be preachy and insufferable for the whole book (she’s not at all).

I don’t think I can really convey how amazing this book is. I hope people just give it a chance. Read the first chapter in the store. Take advantage of the “Sample” feature for ebookstores. It’s worth that small effort to see if the book captures a reader’s attention. I was captivated from the first chapter. A-

Best regards,

Jane

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

53 Comments

  1. Babs
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 10:56:35

    I’m almost 50% through this book and LOVING IT! It isn’t like anything I’ve read lately — who would have thunk that discussions of estate management could be sexy?!?!? So happy to have gotten this recommendation in the podcast, thank you!

  2. Jennifer S
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 11:57:18

    I’m very intrigued by this book. Normally this isn’t the type of romance I would read. I usually stick with paranormal or contemporary with just an occasional historical thrown in, and those are usually much lighter reads. But this great review and others I’ve seen has me thinking I need to read this.

  3. Author on Vacation
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 12:03:01

    Got my copy and am looking forward to the read. Best luck to the author.

  4. erinf1
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 12:43:25

    I had heard such wonderful things about this book (here and a few other places) I went on a limb and pre-ordered it. Just got it delivered to my Kindle this AM and planed on starting tonight… thanks for a wonderful review… now I’m planning on starting it whenever I have a moment :)

  5. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 13:00:52

    You had me at “negative reviews because she’s unabashedly fraudulent.” “Cold” is gravy.

  6. DM
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 14:01:43

    This book made me think of Black Silk. It’s a very quiet, rewarding read–two flawed people coming to know one another–almost no plot or outside tension to speak of–just will they or won’t they grow enough to understand one another. I think we see so few romances like this because they are tricky to pull off–but this one worked!

  7. library addict
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 14:09:30

    I’ve got this in my TBR pile.

  8. Maili
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 14:30:44

    I’m sold.

    *off to buy a copy*

    [Edited: I'm already five pages in and liking it so far. No need for me to adjust, either. Yay.]

  9. Karenmc
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 15:56:21

    I’ve finished the first chapter. It’s reminding me of Ivory, Duran, Thomas…not too shabby for a debut author : ) I want to leave work now so I can go home and read.

  10. Joanne Renaud
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 17:45:43

    @DM– this is like “Black Silk”?! I love that book! One of my favorites by Judy Cuevas (before she became Judith Ivory).

    The description sounds very intriguing. I think I’ll check it out.

    BTW, when is it set?

  11. Kate Sherwood
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 17:58:03

    I’m intrigued! Off to go shopping…

  12. Maili
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 18:40:16

    @Joanne Renaud: 1810s. Maybe 1815?

  13. DM
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 18:45:10

    @Joanne Renaud

    The book was described as a Regency–but there’s no date in the text and nothing to ground it in a particular period. It actually feels more Victorian than Regency to me. It’s the tight focus on the characters that makes me think of Black Silk. Enjoy!

  14. Tina
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 19:09:25

    I’m an outlier here. I liked he book well enough but definitely not an ‘A’ grade for me personally.

    The heroine is my issue. And yes, I am one of those who thinks she is cold. As a reader I felt distanced from her to an extent that I couldn’t relate enough to her to actually like her. I don’t mind her trying to have a baby to steal an inheritance. The person who is due to inherit the property is an asshole so I wished her successful l in her endeavors there.

    But still., that wasn’t enough to make me like her. I kept mind-flashing to Betty Draper while I was reading it. Her face kept super-imposing over the heroine’s.

    The hero was awesome though. Loved him.

  15. Zara
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 19:30:20

    Thirty odd pages in, and I am ENTHRALLED.

  16. Meoskop
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 21:06:46

    I’ve been stalled on page 50 for about a month. I love her writing style but the heroine is not catching me at all, and I can’t stop wondering why the hero shows up the second day.

  17. Janine
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 23:29:37

    @DM:

    The book was described as a Regency–but there’s no date in the text and nothing to ground it in a particular period. It actually feels more Victorian than Regency to me. It’s the tight focus on the characters that makes me think of Black Silk.

    Well, there was the mention of the Enclosure Act but I also thought it had something of a Victorian feel, especially with the focus on the village children’s education.

    I too was reminded of Black Silk because of the introspection (and also because of the distinctive prose, and the embarrassing situations the hero found himself in), and also of Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy (esp. To Love and to Cherish) because of the pastoral/bucolic feel and all the focus on English country village life. And a little of Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation which also dealt with village life and community issues a bit. You don’t see those issues come up in romance too often.

  18. Jennie
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 00:54:46

    I kept mind-flashing to Betty Draper while I was reading it.

    Maybe this explains something – I am one of the few viewers who actually *likes* Betty Draper. I mean, not all the time; she can be a real bitch. But I find her interesting and at times even sympathetic. So maybe it’s not surprising that I LOVED A Lady Awakened.

  19. Tae
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 01:19:31

    I don’t know that I would pick this up on my own, but your review has intrigued me. I like that it sounds somewhat realistic. It looks like I may give it a go.

  20. infinitieh
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 01:20:36

    I thought his name was Theophilus?

    I’m enjoyed the book well enough but I’m only on page 278. I, too, think Martha is a bit cold but Theo makes up for it.

  21. Nicole
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 06:27:16

    Jane, I haven’t read this book (although I sure plan on tracking it down now) but reading your list of the ‘negatives’ among the Amazon reviews just reinforces one of the problems with the romance genre (at least as represented by mainstream publishers). There seem to be too many prudish and judgemental readers who insist on the characters living in a romantic fantasyland, where the heroes can be bad but the heroines must be paragons.

    Of course, if you can’t like the characters at all you can’t be swept away by their romance, but unusual characters and scenarios often have so much potential for deep emotion. I get so frustrated when I read narrow-minded criticisms based on morality rather than storytelling. It’s no wonder that romance authors feel compelled to churn out the same formulaic dross over and over again if they want to sell well and not offend anybody.

    I say bring on the less perfect characters and less blissfully romantic situations. Even if I don’t end up liking this book (or any other more daring effort) myself, if more authors try to escape the stereotypes there are bound to be more books I will like.

  22. Jane
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 08:10:20

    @Nicole I don’t know that a person who dislikes this book or doesn’t relate to Martha is prudish or uptight. She is a challenging character. I read those Amazon reviews and felt that the reviewers were entirely justified in their reactions; however my reaction was different. I liked cold fish Martha who had little respect for the rake Theo. Finally, a rake that isn’t lionized!

    But I do think that we readers give the heroes a much greater pass. One of the reasons I believe this is because we aren’t men and thus they are more fantastical creatures. We are women and relate more deeply to the female characters and because we relate deeply, we judge more heavily. Along the lines of “familiarity breeds contempt.”

  23. Brussel Sprout
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 08:33:12

    I have become sooooo picky about romances, but I heard about it, read the sample and then glommed it all yesterday afternoon. I really enjoyed it. Not as much as The Lady’s Secret by Joanna Chambers, but nearly. It’s a terrific read.

  24. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 08:49:45

    I’m about halfway through it. I don’t find her cold at all. I find her utterly sad and lonely–and she doesn’t seem to realize it.

  25. Jane
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 09:18:13

    @Moriah Jovan Yes, she is lonely. She doesn’t know how to make friends. She feels uncomfortable around nearly everyone. She retreats inside herself. I think to others she appears cold and snobbish.

  26. Leni
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 14:21:18

    This book is going to be sent to me. I skimmed some parts of this post to keep the element of surprise as it’s being read. But can’t remember hearing so much about a not reading a book like this before. Really looking forward to getting my copy.

  27. Ann
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 17:42:22

    I just ordered a sample for my Kindle. This book has been on my radar for awhile, but I am on the fence if I will like it. We’ll see.

  28. SHZ
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 21:31:50

    The sample is interesting, and I think I’ll buy the book.

    It certainly isn’t your standard Julia Quinn fluff.

    One of the reasons I stay away from historical romance is the sameness to most of the stories. I am excited by this one, and do feel I can identify with the heroine. What is wrong with a cold heroine anyway? Heroes are frequently like that.

  29. Zara
    Dec 28, 2011 @ 23:22:28

    I usually tear through new books in a matter of hours. I have to be careful when ordering books, because if I download one at 10pm, I’ll still be awake at 1 or 2am reading! I am forcing myself to read this one slowly, and take breaks, because it is so damn good. Still haven’t finished… There is just so much to take in.

  30. Patricia
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 09:48:44

    For those wondering about the dates, it is mentioned in the last chapter that Napoleon has been imprisoned at Elba which would set the story in 1814.

  31. Ros
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 10:10:14

    I loved it. So much so that I am contemplating never writing another word again because I know I’ll never be as good as Ms Grant.

    Martha reminds me quite a lot of Anne Elliot from Persuasion. I don’t find her cold at all. She is full of compassion for others but she has strong principles which she values more highly than her own happiness. I really loved how both Theo and Martha were awkward and put their foot in it when they first visited the labourers’ cottages, but they persevered because they genuinely cared. As for the fraud, I think that Martha’s motivations for this grow stronger and stronger throughout the book, and I sympathised a lot with her moral struggles over her choices. I thought she found a very satisfying solution which gave everyone more or less what they wanted/deserved/were entitled to.

  32. Kate Hewitt
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 12:03:30

    I just finished this book, having bought it on the recommendation here, and I absolutely loved it. Gorgeous writing and amazing characters–really, I don’t think I have enjoyed a book so much in a long time. I’m in post-book depression now, since she doesn’t have a back list!

  33. JMM
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 15:09:10

    I must buy this. I like “cold” heroines. Better than weepy ones.

    And how many heroes have we read who lie and deceive to get what they want?

  34. Rosie
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 18:29:02

    This was one of the most oddly compelling books I’ve read in a long time. I kept thinking to myself that I should be bored by all this estate management business — but I wasn’t. I was taken along with Theo and Martha and their plans and their purpose and their growth. Holy cow, how I loved the growth of Theo Mirkwood from the first to last page. He just became one of my favorite heroes of 2011. I loved how much Martha’s opinion and encouragement meant to him. I loved that he and Martha talked and bounced ideas off each other and built a believable admiration for each other. I believed that they fell in love. I believed that they belonged together and as corny as it is, completed each other. A keeper, for sure.

  35. Molly O'Keefe
    Dec 29, 2011 @ 21:51:27

    This was my first book on my new kindle! Fantastic – all the way around. The scene with Theo after she has her first callers? With the lemon cake – how happy and thankful she was to finally have friends – all on his doing…amazing. I’m a huge fan.

  36. Review: A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant | Smexy Books
    Dec 30, 2011 @ 08:06:29

    [...] Reviews Dear Author – A- The Romanceaholic – 4/5 [...]

  37. GrowlyCub
    Dec 30, 2011 @ 13:02:22

    @Tina: It wasn’t that she was cold that disturbed me, it was the complete character reversal that happened after about page 170 or so. The Martha from the early book did not seem consistent with the prig in the later half.

    I loved the language and plot in the first 150-200 pages, then it went south for me. It had great potential but the denouement and conclusion just didn’t resonate for me.

    Still looking forward to Grant’s next book.

  38. Kate Sherwood
    Jan 01, 2012 @ 10:52:38

    I bought this based on the review, and I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t thrilled by the ending. It felt like a bit of a cop-out, to me. If you’re going to set up a moral conflict and have a character do something questionable, stick with it, I say! It just wrapped up a bit too tidily, for my taste. Then again, it IS a romance, so a tidy ending is pretty much mandatory, I guess…

  39. Robin/Janet
    Jan 04, 2012 @ 22:13:37

    I know I’m very late to this party, but I just finished the book and OMG I LOVED IT!! What a smart, genre-busting, wonderfully crafted book. And it was neither a Recency nor Austen/Heyer fan fiction.

    @DM: I have been obsessively telling Jane all the reasons I think this book is an echo of Black Silk. Not that it isn’t entirely original in its own way, but I think one of the reasons I love it so much is because it has some of what makes Black Silk my favorite book in the genre:

    1. Widowed heroine who had been less than happily married to an older man and who is currently having her right to inherit challenged by dead husband’s brother, although in BS the focus is on Henry’s will, while in ALA it’s on Martha’s possible pregnancy with an heir. Also? Submit has all that thick blonde hair, which reminded me of the scenes in which Theo unwinds and winds up Martha’s honey blonde hair. Oh, and the way Martha wears black in a similar way as Submit – both small women who cover themselves in black and use it as a forbidding costume. And the highly intellectualized character of the heroine is similar, as well, as is the shared desire not to be controlled by the wills (in both senses of the word) of men. As well as the disconnect between the mind and the body and the remote moralism.

    2. Extremely likable but rakish, unabashed “sensualist” hero. Theo seems less scandalous than Graham, but both have that instant attraction to the widow and both share that obsessive desire to unravel the mystery of her austerity. And both grow in purpose under the somewhat forbidding expectations of the heroine.

    3. The question of inheritance and the possibility of the heroine’s having to give up her marital home to the late husband’s brother. In BS, this is solved through a somewhat deus ex machina way, IMO, while in ALA Martha is much more active in the resolution of her dilemma, which IMO gives the edge to ALA in the heroine’s patriarchal rebellion.

    Having seen several people indicate their dislike for the end of the novel, I’m curious about that, because for me it worked beautifully.

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    I loved the way Martha solves the inheritance problem. IMO her original scheme just has too many complexities to really work, in part because there is so much riding first on her pregnancy and then on the sex of her child. Not to mention how her relationship with Theo would resolve and in what time frame. The way I saw it, Martha’s ultimate goal was not so much to hold on to the property but to protect her neighborhood’s improvements and the women who suffered under her dead husband’s brother. And when she finds out that there are, indeed, even more victims of the living Mr. Russell, she finds a way to incorporate them into her scheme and still manages to manipulate Mr. Russell into doing what she wants to do. I loved that she could see a smarter way to accomplish her large goals AND get Theo in the process.

    I also loved that she becomes better connected to her emotional vulnerabilities and her need for companionship, friendship, and love without losing her essential bossiness and strictness. And I’m definitely curious about @GrowlyCub’s issues with Martha in the last part of the book. I definitely didn’t see her as a prig at any point.

    As for the time period of the book, there was a direct reference to the Prince Regent, and I think Grant needed it to be a Regency because of the Enclosure Acts and all the domestication stuff, but I agree with those who felt the novel has a definite Victorian feel. But I wondered if some of that feeling for me was the connection to Black Silk I kept feeling.

    Also? Can we count the genre stereotypes this book blasted sky high? From the whole ‘sex with the right man will loosen up the frigid heroine’ to ‘a heroine’s patriarchal rebellion culminates in 4,000 orgasms’ to ‘marriage is the only purpose of Romance/the heroine’s journey,’ to ‘historical heroines cannot be feminists,” etc. — oh, it was so very refreshing.

    I felt the ending was a bit like dropping off a cliff, but I have a theory that Romance rarely, if ever, gets the book ending just right (either too much or too little), so it didn’t surprise me that ALA fell into one of those two categories. Still, I hope we get to see more of Martha and Theo in Will’s book.

  40. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 04, 2012 @ 22:40:44

    @Robin/Janet: I totally understand and am in agreement with @GrowlyCub’s issue.

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    Firstly, she went from “cold” (aka sad and lonely) (possibly shy) and scheming to keep the property (loved that) for the sake of her tenants (and, you know, I’m evil enough that it wouldn’t have even taken that to sway me to her side) to doing an about-face when presented with the kids. It was like somebody stuck a puppy in her face and her spine melted when it licked her nose. I think it was inconsistent with her purpose, which was, yes, to protect the property’s tenants. But if SHE wasn’t there to protect her property, who would make sure it got done? Oh, right. She’d be Theo’s wife, right next door. Moving along…

    Secondly, she set all this in motion before she talked to Theo. This was also inconsistent with how she’d arranged everything before. She made the decision to do this thing and then she was totally upfront with Theo about what had to be done (loved that too), but then didn’t tell Theo, “Oh, hey, by the way, can I come live with you now and be your wife since I’m going to do this awesomely selfless thing?” before she did it. It was the going from scheming-with-a-purpose to sacrificial lamb, with no guarantee that the new arrangement would stay arranged that way. I could see the villain riding in X years from now and the house and villagers having the same problem. In other words, nothing was solved by her sacrifice.

    Thirdly, the section after that, at the end, when she and Theo are crossing paths, was simultaneously too rushed, too easy, and really rather anticlimactic. This is the part that bothered me most, but I am least able to articulate it. Something was off. Even if I put my editor cap on, I couldn’t say how to fix it, but it didn’t ring true to the rest of the book.

    I loved that their sex was unsexy. I loved that she gradually unfolded in his hands, but I did feel like the pacing of her unfolding was off or inconsistent or that I missed some internal dialogue somewhere along the way. But that didn’t bother me too much. Or at all. I didn’t even mind that she felt she could use Theo for a stud as long as she didn’t enjoy it. After all, if it’s a sacrifice, it’s virtuous (which she felt herself to be). If she enjoys it, it’s no sacrifice at all and thus, she would just be a thieving bitch (which would crush her).

    I loved the prose. I loved the courtship. I loved watching the characters unfold. I could read about Martha and Theo and their land management for another 200,000 words. I didn’t like watching her stray from her purpose on what seemed to me to be a whim, when she is not given to whimsy.

  41. Janine
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 00:44:24

    @Robin/Janet: Agree with you about the similarities to Black Silk (you left out that both books didn’t shy away from putting the hero in discomfiting situations), but I also thought of Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish because of all the pastoral/community stuff and the vicar’s role in that.

    Having seen several people indicate their dislike for the end of the novel, I’m curious about that, because for me it worked beautifully.

    SPOILER
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    I loved the way Martha solves the inheritance problem.

    Much as I adored this book (and I can count on one hand the number of debut historical romances that have impressed me this much), the resolution to the inheritance problem was probably the weakest link in it for me.

    The reason I say that is the way Martha’s relationship with her neighbors was portrayed throughout much of the book. She was a loner and wasn’t close to them. She hadn’t called on them and they hadn’t even called on her until Theo prompted them to do so. Then she asks them to confront her brother-in-law and support her in her quest to oust him from his quote-unquote rightful place.

    Frankly, I just didn’t buy that that would work. Even with the testimony of the woman who had been raped by the brother-in-law. In those days, and heck, even now, a lot of people don’t want to know from stuff like that. A lot of people don’t want to interfere in what they see as the domestic disputes or trespasses of others. Without evidence, in the eyes of some it would be the former maid’s word against the brother-in-law’s word as to what really happened. And some would side with him simply because of his class and his rank.

    Others would feel that they had no guarantee the ploy would work, and if the brother in law decided to stick it out in their community he might find ways to make them pay, or at least regret having put him in that discomfiting position. He might even take his anger out on his servants (members of their community) worse than he would have otherwise.

    Right or wrong, in every community there are people who don’t want to make waves or ruffle feathers — especially the feathers of someone powerful whom they don’t know and have never before met. It’s not a comfortable or easy thing to do. In other words, Martha was asking a lot of them.

    Now IF Martha had been close to these women and their husbands, if she had had a long standing relationship with them, I could more easily see them rallying to her aid. But she didn’t. She’d been standoffish and aloof from them most of the time she’d lived there, and her acquaintance with them was a brief one.

    So I didn’t buy it. I could believe that Martha would act as she did, but not that the other landowners would.

    As an aside, I actually half expected at least one person in the community to realize and condemn what she and Theo had done to defraud the brother-in-law, and I was a little disappointed when no one did. It didn’t ring true for me, but that may be because the book had such a strong 19th century feel that I was reminded of those 19th century novels where consequences come back to bite anyone who has sex out of wedlock.

    I think the way no one ever caught or censured them, combined with ease with which everyone rallied around Martha and against the brother-in-law made the ending less than wholly convincing to me. It all felt just a little bit too easy and smooth going to seem as real and believable (esp. given the Victorian feel) as everything that preceded it had seemed.

  42. Robin/Janet
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 17:15:03

    @Moriah Jovan:

    SPOILER
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    Thirdly, the section after that, at the end, when she and Theo are crossing paths, was simultaneously too rushed, too easy, and really rather anticlimactic. This is the part that bothered me most, but I am least able to articulate it. Something was off. Even if I put my editor cap on, I couldn’t say how to fix it, but it didn’t ring true to the rest of the book.

    I agree re. the last scenes in the book. In fact, the scene where Theo confronts his father is probably the biggest WTF in the book for me. I can see some of the reasons the scene is important — it establishes his intentions, his adoption of responsible adulthood, etc., not to mention ideally making us feel protective of Martha — but I honestly didn’t feel it was his place to tell the family her secret before she had a chance to do whatever she needed to do to resolve her issues. And from the point where Martha’s siblings show up to the end was a cliff-jumping rush, although I did like the fact that Martha proposes and not Theo. She still wanted to stay in control and that rung true to me.

    Firstly, she went from “cold” (aka sad and lonely) (possibly shy) and scheming to keep the property (loved that) for the sake of her tenants (and, you know, I’m evil enough that it wouldn’t have even taken that to sway me to her side) to doing an about-face when presented with the kids. It was like somebody stuck a puppy in her face and her spine melted when it licked her nose. I think it was inconsistent with her purpose, which was, yes, to protect the property’s tenants. But if SHE wasn’t there to protect her property, who would make sure it got done? Oh, right. She’d be Theo’s wife, right next door. Moving along…

    Okay, I see this quite differently, so hopefully I can articulate why.

    At the beginning, I saw Martha as a woman who had made a place for herself in the area and had lived her “duty” by making improvements to the neighborhood and helping bring to life the school (schooling girls definitely seemed an authentic passion for her). And really, except for the curate, she’s the only one who has the power, money, or, apparently, the drive to do so.

    As the novel proceeds, though, and she begins, uh, working with Mirkwood, he takes up her purpose (in part to please her, to be sure), and by the time the curate can leave the church and support himself as a school teacher, Martha’s purpose has become both broader (now she has additional interest in protecting the female household staff and making amends for Mrs. Weaver’s rape) and more enmeshed in the community via Theo’s bridge-building in regard to the people in the area.

    And then once the other Mr. Russell comes, and she sees that even his wife and potentially his sons are victims of the man, she brings them into her scheme, as well. This did not strike me as a divergence from her character at all, or a softening — well, any more than her general movement toward community bonds is a softening. Although I would really have liked more on -page interaction between the women, especially when Martha is planning her final moves. I also wasn’t bothered by the fact that she did not tell Theo of her plan – after all, this was how her original plan was, heh, born (i.e. through her autonomous will), and on a narrative level I can see how such a move adds to the dramatic tension, etc.

    I guess for me Martha was a rebel and a proto-feminist, but she was a feminist in the way of some other women of the 19th C. I’m thinking, for example, of the Beecher sisters here, especially Catherine Beecher, who was instrumental in establishing the domestic realm as the power-hold of women. Now there are myriad good arguments to be made about how creating a domestic sphere of influence for women isn’t a revolutionary win against patriarchy, but I do think Martha’s feminism falls more into this mode than, say, something more overtly bold.

    Also, for me, at least, had Martha turned a blind eye to the other wife, she would have been doing the same thing that the icky brother was ready to do to her. And while that may have made her more ruthless, I think it wouldn’t have conformed to the general character of her ruthlessness, which for me was grounded in a sense of progressive social duty.

    Had Grant constructed the brother differently — i.e. he wasn’t an ahole — that would have changed the entire trajectory of Martha’s character arc, I think, and maybe that would be more the book some readers wanted. Martha could have been a heroine who, from the start, was about her own power and authority. I would not have objected to that. But I don’t think that’s the heroine we ever had, so I didn’t see a degeneration in her autonomy or ruthlessness.

    @Janine: Right or wrong, in every community there are people who don’t want to make waves or ruffle feathers — especially the feathers of someone powerful whom they don’t know and have never before met. It’s not a comfortable or easy thing to do. In other words, Martha was asking a lot of them.

    No more than asking a total stranger to sleep with you for money to impregnate you and have no claim on the child, IMO. I mean, when you think of what lengths she went to before she even knew this man, I don’t see what she did at the end as nearly so big a risk, for them or her.

    Had Theo not been opening the way for the better off neighbors to get to know Martha (while she, in turn, encouraged Theo to get to know the less well-off among his laboring tenants), I think I’d be more in agreement with your skepticism there. But I felt Grant had inserted enough scenes of both Theo and Martha interacting with the other better off people in the neighborhood to believe that those people with whom she had been establishing relationships would prefer the current Mrs. Russell to retain possession of the property. In fact, if the people she relied on had any complaint, perhaps it would be in the decision Martha makes to have the other Mrs. Russell live there? But given Martha’s improvement of the neighborhood conditions, her burgeoning connections with these people, and the general idealization of the neighborhood in the book, I could buy it quite easily. Also, it didn’t strike me that the other Mr. Russell was a man of much rank or general esteem. He had no fortune of his own and was not titled, so I’m not sure how much influence the other people would perceive him having.

    As for someone outing Martha and Theo, I thought Grant kind of dealt with that when Martha had that discussion with the curate. Here you have a young widow and a young landowner who are close in age and in geographical proximity. Both bring benevolent purpose with them to the area, so why wouldn’t the neighbors secretly hope they eventually became connected, and perhaps turn a blind eye to other things that might suggest a compromising position? I think there’s some of that in Pride and Prejudice, just as one example, and in other sentimental fiction, as well. Not to mention in RL, where you had practices like bundling going on and a general pattern of pre-marital pregnancy at rates consistently hovering around 20%, IIRC.

    Is the support of the whole neighborhood realistic? Maybe not, but I do think it’s consistent with the somewhat idealized pastoral world Grant created in the book.

  43. Janine
    Jan 05, 2012 @ 17:34:54

    But given Martha’s improvement of the neighborhood conditions, her burgeoning connections with these people, and the general idealization of the neighborhood in the book, I could buy it quite easily.

    Is the support of the whole neighborhood realistic? Maybe not, but I do think it’s consistent with the somewhat idealized pastoral world Grant created in the book.

    This really was such a minor issue for me in an otherwise great book, but I think it was what you call “the general idealization of the neighborhood” that I didn’t wholly believe in. Aside from that the world Grant created didn’t strike me as “somewhat idealized,” at least not compared to what I’m used to encountering in this genre. And I was so delighted by that.

    SPOILERS
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    I loved the way the sex scenes were so uncomfortable for Theo and Martha at first. I loved that there was ugliness in this world: rape and even a pregnancy resulting from it. The laborer’s wife had to contend with too many kids including one who was disabled. She even suspected Theo of being a child molester at first. The farmer almost died without anyone knowing.

    There was a lot of grittiness to the story, and the world was a lot less idealized than typical of the genre. So when the neighbors began to visit Martha and befriended her so quickly and easily (despite her social awkwardness), when no one pointed a moralizing finger at her the way the farmer’s wife had at Theo, when the community rallied against Martha and against Mr. Russell, it all seemed just a small touch too idealistic compared to the rest of it, and that idealization struck me as more typical of the historical romance genre than the rest of the book, and therefore, a bit disappointing and very slightly jarring. Unlike everything else, it didn’t defy or subvert my expectations.

    Having said that, I’ve also long thought that it is so hard to pull off the ending in a romance. The ending has to be happy yet it also has to be believable, and the more realistic a book is, the harder that it is to pull off. Not because happiness is unrealistic, but because a “warts and all” approach to storytelling can sometimes stand in the way of the emotional glow readers are looking for.

    This was such an astonishingly good book that I can easily forgive that for me, the ending slipped a little closer to typical and was not quite as fresh and surprising as the rest. It was a minor thing in the splendor of the language, the characters and the otherwise so real and believable world Grant created.

  44. Robin/Janet
    Jan 06, 2012 @ 10:40:01

    SPOILER

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    @Janine: I had a very different experience of reading the book. Except for the emotional and sexual issues with Martha and Theo, I did not find the book gritty, at all. Sure Mr. Barrow is terribly, but Theo saves him and we find out that by the time Barrow was removed from his home, he was ‘past his crisis.’ And from then on, the neighbors will be watching out for him. And yes Mrs. Weaver was raped by the other Mr. Russell, but then she had a good man who had loved her since she was a girl marry her. And the woman who (understandably) has no use for Theo and Martha eventually concedes to have one of her daughters attend the school. And even consents to let Martha hold her hand when they confront Mr. Russell! Even the other Mrs. Russell finds safety in the neighborhood.

    It’s not that I think this is a world where bad things don’t happen. And I didn’t feel the way I do in some of Loretta Chase’s books, where I feel that bad things are glossed over or made light of. But I also don’t get a strong Wyckerly vibe, either. Martha had a crappy marriage and it encouraged her most antisocial and stern tendencies, but at least Mr. Russell wasn’t physically abusive like Anne’s husband in TLATC was, and she was able to use his drunkenness to put her improvement schemes into effect. In fact, one of the books I’ve been thinking about re. this one is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I hesitate to even say because of all the problematic racial issues associated with that book. But there’s a way in which Stowe’s novel also represents a strong trend in the sentimental tradition to elevate and reward a strong, positive community ethic. And that was my experience of ALA. As well as feeling there was some of the eccentric but likable flair you often see with the sentimental subspecies, local color novels (Sarah Orne Jewett comes to mind there, as does Stowe). And, come to think of it, a dose of George Eliot’s insider/outsider dynamic. I’m not saying that’s what Grant was going for or that people can’t read the novel differently — just trying to articulate my own experience of it.

  45. Janine
    Jan 06, 2012 @ 13:57:06

    SPOILER
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    I get what you are saying. I think our experiences of the book are equally valid, and I totally understand how one could experience it the way you did.

    Perhaps I didn’t articulate what I meant that well because I don’t think it was as dark as Wyckerley by any stretch, either. The similarity I saw to Wyckerley was in the pastoral and community approach, but not in darkness. I was comparing A Lady Awakened in my mind to many of the historical romances being published these days (for example Julie Anne Long’s), and on the whole, it was far more realistic to me than most of them.

    Up to a point I believed in the community’s coming together, such as in the case of agreeing to watch out for Mr. Barrow. It didn’t change the fact that he had nearly died, though. I also believed Mrs. Weaver’s husband loved her, but for all his love he still gave her more children than she could care for well. So in my own experience of the book, for the most part good and bad were balanced in this world in a believable way.

    But when it came to the way the community viewed Martha’s schemes to oust her brother-in-law that the good-to-bad ratio seemed to me to shift in Martha’s favor in order to accommodate the happy ending. And really, that is something that happens in many, many romances. It’s not anything I don’t expect 95% of the time. With this book, I did expect something different, maybe because it read so fresh and different to me in most ways.

  46. Swordsmen, A Notorious Widow, and Vaudeville Artistes: Starting the Reading Year Right | Something More
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 23:48:59

    [...] A Lady Awakened, so I’m not going to discuss it in detail; if you want more, here’s a rave review from Jane of Dear Author and an opposing view from Meoskop at It’s My Genre, Baby. The Dear [...]

  47. VJ
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 13:40:58

    I bought this book, A Lady Awakened, at Target—simply because of Eloisa James’ review at the back that it’s a worthy debut book. I must say that I am a very picky reader—I buy books by the bagful and throw most of them away. Sad to say, this book belongs to the trash can category. It’s probably the most disappointing book I’ve read in a long time.
    Yes, it’s different, but hear me out–the hero and heroine are not believable characters. They are not likable either. Theo is supposed to be beautiful–a rake by London standards–but what I saw in the book was a man of low self esteem who cannot assert himself. Doesn’t sound like much of a rake to me.
    Mrs. Russel, the heroine, is simply bland. No reaction at all to a beautiful man on her bed having sex with her–I find that unrealistic.
    Now the plot—OMG. I have never read a more ridiculous plot. None of the heroine’s reasons are compelling enough to make her do what she did. None of what the hero agreed to do are convincing either. A man just doesn’t act like that. If he was what he was, he would have abandoned the frigid woman eons ago.
    Moving on to the supporting characters—I mean really? Neighbors are that nice and that easy to accept someone without underlying suppositions? And what about the maids? Seriously—no gossip there that even escaped the household?
    I will give credit though, to Miss Grant’s descriptions and prose, but I won’t apologize for the bad review. No matter how well one describes the characters or the bucolic landscape of Sussex, the credibility of the plot and characters matters most.
    Overall, a tedious, boring, read if you have nothing else to read book.

  48. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 13:55:33

    @VJ:

    Moving on to the supporting characters—I mean really? Neighbors are that nice and that easy to accept someone without underlying suppositions? And what about the maids? Seriously—no gossip there that even escaped the household?

    I could get on board with that complaint and noted the same thing, but went with it.

  49. February Recommend Reads | Dear Author
    Feb 13, 2012 @ 10:03:16

    [...] any January Recommended Reads because we only really had one and that was Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. February isn’t as bare, but it isn’t as robust as previous months [...]

  50. One Day – David Nicholls | In Between Dreams
    May 20, 2012 @ 21:32:58

    [...] le livre le plus passionnant, le plus bouleversant et le plus marquant que j’ai lu depuis…A Lady Awakened de Cecilia Grant (cet hiver). J’ai sacrifié deux nuits de sommeil pour le terminer, incapable de [...]

  51. Best of 2012 by Jane
    Dec 21, 2012 @ 11:15:08

    [...] Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant (Review here) – This was a genre bender, in my opinion.  A stunning debut that I’ll revisit for [...]

  52. REVIEW: Darius by Grace Burrowes
    May 09, 2013 @ 07:59:11

    [...] the past few years with an impregnation plot. I enjoyed the other two, Cecilia Grant’s superb A Lady Awakened and the well-done Waking up with the Duke by Lorraine Heath, far more than I did [...]

  53. REVIEW: A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant
    Jun 03, 2013 @ 08:02:08

    [...] first two books, A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone were both straight A reads for me, so I was delighted when I saw that A [...]

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