Dear Ms. Lockhart:
I came to your book cold. It was in the DA submissions folder, but the excerpt was confusing, so despite the recommendation from Naomi Novik, I passed the first time. But something in the language stayed with me, and I went back and started to read it. I almost abandoned it in the first ten pages because I had no idea what was going on. But I persevered and I’m so glad I did. This is a debut effort and it shows, but the originality and the freshness outweigh the flaws.
Sarah Vere is a shy, pretty, but otherwise unremarkable debutante in 1809 London when her world is turned upside down. Her brother and head of family, George, Baron Vere, avenges her honour in a duel and kills his opponent, the Earl of Rochford. Badly wounded himself, Vere flees for the continent and Sarah and her mother are left to fend for themselves. Ostracized by the ton, they eventually return to the Vere estate in Yorkshire, where they endure the penury created by Vere’s absence. Lacking proof of his death, they can remain in their home, but without him they cannot draw on funds to keep the estate and its tenants solvent. As her mother decays, Sarah takes over the management of the estate and tries to keep them from sinking into abject poverty.
In the wilds of north Yorkshire, Sarah is forced by her good-natured neighbors to venture back into local society. Everyone knows what happened in London, but they insist on befriending her and including her in their less formal gatherings, where she once again encounters the new Earl of Rochford, the late Earl’s twin brother Harry. Harry, a career officer, sealed Sarah’s ostracism from London society at their first meeting, but here he sees a different side of her and comes to realize that his adored brother may not have been the victim he assumed. As they spend time together, they warily become friends and are on the verge of something more, but Sarah pulls back and Harry abruptly leaves.
All this happens in the first half of this short novel. To reveal the rest of the story would spoil it, so I’ll only say that the mystery of George’s whereabouts is solved and the lives of the three continue to be intertwined. Given the plot, I was mentally prepared for a bittersweet ending, but there is a positive ending and the implication of an HEA. It’s not spelled out, though, and the obstacles to the HEA haven’t been eliminated. The second half of the book is more action-filled, and although the atmospheric writing style is constant, the plot follows a slightly more predictable path.
It’s hard for me to describe the style of this novel. It is at once cerebral and emotion-filled. Very little is spelled out, and the reader really has to trust the author. The prose can be elliptical but is often quite lovely. The jumps between POV, time periods, and settings makes the story confusing at times, but it is always very atmospheric. In the end, I felt that I was looking at a fully realized portrait that had been produced with a minimum of brush strokes. The internal monologues of the actors and the way Sarah’s changed circumstances were depicted by the author and experienced by the character reminded me of the romance author Mary Ann Gibbs, although she primarily wrote Victorian and Edwardian romances for Signet:
“What if he does not return? It has been so very long! He has not sent word, Mama, and you cannot think he would leave us in this tangle if he were not very badly pressed. What if he—” she choked off, unable to say it. But he must be dead, she thought. George would never leave us like this. He must be dead.
Mama patted her. “He shall return,” she said placidly. “And we shall take you back to town and get you fired off.”
Sarah stared at her. Mama was gazing out of the window, her head drooping a little as she slid back into dream. She felt rather old. Is this wisdom, she wondered, this weight upon my back? I preferred ignorance! For a moment she felt she might understand why George had kept her so sheltered, so naive, even as she frankly resented his leaving her so wholly unprepared to deal with the world. Such a life, from her new distance, seemed obscene; and oh, how she longed for it.
The relationship between Harry and Sarah is shadowed not only by the fateful duel, but also by Harry’s love for his brother, the long-lasting effects on Sarah of both the precipitating incident and the duel, and Sarah’s relationship with her brother. Both try to find a way to overcome these obstacles, but the difficulty of doing so is pithily summarized by George:
“Do you love him?”
“I–it doesn’t matter. Nothing will come of it.”
“At least you understand that. You will not see him again.” George held up his palm to stop her as she opened her mouth to speak. “I do not say he is the monster his brother was, but you must see it is indecent. For heaven’s sake, he gained his title by my hand.”
In a sea of historical romances in which social relationships are rendered in contemporary terms, it was both a jolt and a pleasure to read this passage. While this exchange stood out to me, the same sense of verisimilitude pervades other parts of the book, such as the depiction of rural gentry society in Yorkshire. And Sarah’s relationship with one of the few servants left in the house, her maid Molly, accurately reflects their social distance until an incident suddenly reveals the one area in which there is no distance between them. Their subsequent interaction isn’t one of easy friends, but of fellow travelers.
As I said above, this is a first novel by a new author. It is essentially self-published, and it shows. There are extra spaces between the paragraphs. There are quite a few mistakes and inconsistencies in forms of address, some of which made me stop and wonder if a new character had appeared. At times I really didn’t know what was going on in the story and I had to go back and reread. The opening of the book may be more confusing than anything that follows it and would get plenty of criticism as a First Page. But I forgave all that for satisfaction of reading something unlike anything else I’ve read in the past year. There is no on- or off-page sex, but I felt the strong attraction and bond that was being forged between Sarah and Harry all the same. I had no idea if they could find a way to be together, but I kept reading and hoping. This book won’t work for everyone, for a variety of reasons, but what a pleasure it is to come across a distinctive new voice. Grade: B-
I want to note that this review is just getting in under the wire. In 2013 Dear Author won’t be reviewing books that are only available at Amazon. However, Amazon Prime members can read The Echo for free right now, and the author’s site states that Amazon exclusivity will expire in February 2013. I hope that after that point it will become available to many more readers through other sites.