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REVIEW:  Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

REVIEW: Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

Dear Ms. Lerner,

Your third historical romance, book one in your Lively St. Lemeston series, begins in October of 1812, with a knock on Phoebe Sparks’ door. Phoebe, an author of Improving Tales for Young People, is contemplating what fate to inflict on the protagonist of her current story, who gives birth to an out of wedlock child in a ditch, when the knock interrupts her.
At her door is Mr. Gilchrist, a Tory election agent. Mr. Gilchrist has come to call on Phoebe at her home in Lively St. Lemeston because the Tories and Whigs are battling for every vote in the Lively St. Lemeston district. As a woman, Phoebe cannot vote. But she can have some impact on the outcome of the close election because as the eldest daughter of a deceased freeman—a man whose “freedom of the city” entitled him to vote—she can, according to the Lively St. Lemeston charter, bestow her father’s freeman status on her husband.

Phoebe is a widow. Her husband, a newspaper editor and printer, was a Whig. But Will died two years earlier and Mr. Gilchrist is sure he can persuade Phoebe to marry again. When he insists he knows her taste in men, Phoebe all but shoves him out the door. After a bad marriage and a heartbreaking miscarriage, she has no interest in remarrying, especially not for the sake of an election, and even if she were, her sentiments are on the side of the Whigs and not the Tories.

Meanwhile in London Nick Dymond, the middle son of an earl, is in bed when his mother, Lady Tassell, descends on him and demands that he too involve himself in the matter of Phoebe’s marital status. Nick’s younger brother Tony, a Whig, is running for the same seat Gilchrist wants for the Tories, and since Lady Tassell is campaigning on behalf his older brother’s Stephen’s behalf – yes, this is a political family – she expects Nick to help Tony win the Lively St. Lemeston district seat for the Whigs.

As it happens, Nick is the only member of his family who doesn’t give two flying figs for politics. He hates that the good of the party has been put ahead of the good of family members, and that his mother is always sure she knows what’s best for him.

But even more than that, Nick hates that his mother winces when she looks at him. Nick served as an officer in Wellington’s army and took a bullet in the leg at the battle of Badajoz. His leg was broken and healed weak and now Nick walks with a limp. And he can’t stand the way people – family members especially—have looked at him ever since.

So Nick makes a bet with his mother. He will get Phoebe to marry the Whig baker whom Lady Tassell has picked out for her, and if he is successful, Lady Tassell will never wince when she looks at him again. After an all-too-brief moment of empathy with her son, Lady Tassell agrees.

Of course, Phoebe still has no interest in marrying, but when Nick offers to help her with the laundry, she takes him up on his offer. An attraction develops as Nick continues his campaign for the vote to which Phoebe holds the key, but it’s not as though it would be appropriate for Nick and Phoebe to marry, or even indulge in an affair, when their stations in life are different and he is trying to get her to marry someone else.

To Phoebe her decision to meet Nick again is nothing more than a reason to leave the house after years of staying cooped up inside. And then—disaster. Phoebe’s sixteen year old sister Helen is cast out of her home by their mother. Helen is pregnant, but the father of her child refuses to marry her.

To save Helen’s good name and spare her suffering, Phoebe would do anything. Even marry a man she doesn’t love and has little hope of loving. Even struggle to suppress her growing attraction to Nick.

Since her miscarriage and the death of her husband, Phoebe has felt dead inside, but as she opens up to Nick about the conundrum she faces, something inside her begins to stir.

Nick too begins to come out of his depression and sense of loss at being unable to fight alongside his men. He sees that Phoebe and Mr. Moon, the baker, are all wrong for each other, even though to save his bakery, Mr. Moon desperately needs the money Nick’s mother has promised him in exchange for his marriage to Phoebe and his vote.

Both Phoebe and Nick are used to putting others’ needs ahead of their own desires. With family members and the outcome of the election depending on them doing just that, will Phoebe and Nick learn to shut out the clamor and listen to – as well as follow—their hearts?

I thought of some of my favorite historical romance authors as I read this book – authors like Courtney Milan, Judith Ivory, and Cecilia Grant – because of the good writing, the realness of the characters, and their psychological depth as well.

Nick and Phoebe are richly drawn, wonderfully complex characters with messy emotions that include hopes, fears, dreams and understandable resentments. Nick for example, can’t stand that he since his injury, he has had no control over the way others see him. Phoebe couldn’t wait to escape her critical, perennially dissatisfied mother by marrying Will, but feels guilty for having left her sister alone under their mother’s thumb.

Their attraction is almost a magical thing in that it gives them a new sense of power, not just the power of being attractive to someone you desire, but the power to recognize and express your own desires.

The ideas the novel communicates are at ones simple and complex. Here for example, is an excerpt from a scene in Nick’s viewpoint in which Phoebe confides in him about her sister’s pregnancy and her consequent need to sacrifice her freedom to salvage her sister’s reputation.

She drew in a deep breath and steadied like a raw recruit given a few encouraging words and a clap on the back. “I believe in my sister.”

He was going to win his bet with his mother. He looked away. “Talk to your sister. She’s apologizing because when she looks at you, she sees her guilt that she’s forcing you into marriage. And when you look at her, you see your father’s disappointment. I don’t care whether he would have been disappointed. He would have been wrong.” He couldn’t turn his gaze back to Mrs. Sparks’s face. When he looked at her, he was supposed to see his chance to show his mother the truth of himself. He wasn’t supposed to see her.

The writing in Sweet Disorder is thoughtful and fresh, with a subtle sense of humor woven throughout. The novel takes its title from the poem “Delight in Disorder” by the 17th century poet Robert Herrick. The poem closes with these two couplets: “A careless shoe-string, in whose tie / I see a wild civility; / Do more bewitch me than when art / Is too precise in every part.”

Nick quotes these two couplets during one of the sex scenes, but they serve as more than a charming, seductive line. They also function as a metaphor for Phoebe and Nick’s relationship, and for the book itself: a bewitching, disorderly whole.

As I try to think of what the flaws in this novel might be, I can’t think of many. I don’t enjoy mental lusting in books, although here it’s written with some freshness and there’s a later payoff for it during the earthy, original and character-specific sex scenes in the novel’s last third.

Perhaps too many of the novel’s characters have critical, disapproving or manipulative parents, but this is contrasted by Phoebe’s lovely (if deceased) father, and also ties into the theme of being true to oneself and one’s own needs, rather than to the expectations and needs of others.

A final flaw I can think of is that the epilogue mentions the possibility of reconciliation with a family member I think Nick and Phoebe might be better off keeping at arm’s length.

Other than that I love this book. I love that Phoebe is an ordinary, middle class woman. I love that she is heavy. I love that Nick is not an heir, nor does he ever become the heir. I loved that his limp pains him and that he finds some workarounds for dealing with it, but it is never miraculously cured.

I loved that Nick and Phoebe bring disorder into the other’s life. They agitate, distract, and fluster each other in the best of ways. The chaos their relationship creates extends from within them to without, and to others. If Phoebe allows herself to fall for Nick, she may endanger her sister’s happiness, and that of Mr. Moon, the anxious baker whose desserts are works of art and whose shop is part of the heart of Phoebe’s town. If Nick allows himself to express his desire for Phoebe, what will happen to the election and to his relationships with his family members?

The novel immerses its readers in the life of the Lively St. Lemeston community, and I loved the minor and secondary characters too. There are more of them than I can mention here, but each person is real, and each is both ordinary and extraordinary. Even the villains, such as they are, are human and unhappy. And all the characters are tied to others, entangled in their community, knit together – if one thread is pulled, everything can unravel.

Is there room for honest desires, then? The book answers with a resounding yes. Phoebe and Nick’s muddle is resolved not through order and obedience, but through the disorder made up of their messy emotions and rebellious epiphanies.

It wasn’t his leg that kept him from feeling like a whole man, he realized. It was something far deeper, a lack within himself. He had never wanted anything with such a bone-deep conviction. Sometimes, it seemed, he could go all day without wanting anything at all.

Like the poet Robert Herrick, I am bewitched. A-.



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REVIEW:  Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

REVIEW: Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

Sweet-DisorderDear Rose Lerner,

I’ve barely read any historical romance in the past couple of years but when I found out you had a new book releasing, it was enough to tempt me back into the fold, even if (possibly) only temporarily.  I adored your debut book In For a Penny and so I had high hopes here. (I’m also really pleased that you’ve got your rights to your first two books back and that they will be re-released, by Samhain this time,  later this year.) For people looking for something a bit different than the usual, your books are always a refreshing change.  There are no references to Almacks, not walks along the Serpentine, no carriage rides in Hyde Park.  Even though the hero here is the son of an earl, most of the rest of the cast are working people of the middle classes.

Under the Lively St. Lemeston charter, every freeman of the town has the right to vote for up to two candidates in an election.”

“I know that, Mr. Gilchrist.” Men always wanted to explain things, didn’t they?

“Also under the Lively St. Lemeston charter,” he continued, clearly having no intention of modifying his planned oration, “the eldest daughter of a freeman who died without sons can make her husband a freeman.”

Phoebe tapped her foot on the floor. “My husband is dead,” she pointed out, since apparently they were telling each other things they both already knew.

The young man took a sip of tea. He had an eye for a dramatic pause, anyway; she had to give him credit for that. “You could marry again.”

Phoebe Sparks is a lawyer’s daughter and the widow of a newspaperman.  She has lived all her life in the sleepy town of Lively St. Lemeston.  Her family have always been staunch supporters of the Whigs.  She is intelligent, independent and well-read.  Given that her marriage to Will Sparks turned sour before he died, she has no desire to marry again.  She lives in two very small attic rooms she rents from Mrs. Pengilly and (barely) supports herself by writing Improving Tales for Young People for the Girl’s Companion in London.  When the Tory election agent calls upon her and attempts to cajole her into marriage to a Tory for her votes (which could be enough to swing the upcoming election), Phoebe gives him short shrift.

But her sixteen year old sister finds herself in an interesting condition and all of a sudden, the money and connections of a prominent party member (either Tory or Whig) are exactly what Phoebe needs to protect her sister.

The Honorable Nicholas Dymond is the second son of an earl and a former military officer.  He was forced to resign his commission after his leg was injured at Badajoz and he now walks with the assistance of a cane.  He is very self-conscious about his injury and his feelings about his leg; his stubborn pride which necessitates him never asking for help form one of the major themes of the book.  His formidable mother, Lady Tassell, sends him to Lively St. Lemeston to assist his youngest brother, Tony, in his election campaign and in particular, to secure the votes of Phoebe Sparks by marrying her off to Mr. Moon, a confectioner in town who will vote for the Whigs in return for the payment of his debts.

The set up reminded me a little of the Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed – not so much in story, but in tone.  They are both set in a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business and they both felt historically accurate in their portrayal of village life in their respective time periods.   (I did a little Googling to see if the situation with Phoebe’s two votes was the kind of thing which really happened. My google-fu isn’t great but what I did find supports my feeling from the the book that it was authentic. Certainly I read that people in 1812 expected to be paid for their vote as it was a form of property.)

The Dymonds are a political family. Lady Tassell particularly is always off involved in some political endeavour and election time is especially busy. As a child, Nicholas had even less of his mother’s attention during elections.  Like Lady Tassell, Nick is blessed with a silver tongue.  He is charming and knows all the right things to say.  One of the other themes in the book is about saying what you mean, what you want – because you mean it, because you want it, and not because it is what someone else wants or expects to hear.  Both Nicholas and Phoebe learn lessons in this vein and both of them practice saying what they mean first, with each other.

Phoebe thinks Helen’s best bet is to go away somewhere, have the baby and give the child to a good home and return to town.  That requires money and influence and she’s leaning toward Mr. Moon because Lady Tassell would certainly see that Helen’s child went to a good family and she has the connections to preserve Helen’s secrecy in the endeavour.  However, Phoebe doesn’t particularly like sweets and she doesn’t particularly like Mr. Moon.  He’s nice enough, but they have very little in common.  The Tory candidate for her hand is a widower with a young daughter.  He is more to Phoebe’s taste (as long as they don’t discuss politics).   But, the person she prefers most of all is Nick Dymond.  They spend a lot of time together during the election campaign and they enjoy each other’s company.  Both are quick-witted and Nick loves that Phoebe sees right through the gloss to the man underneath – that she seeks to know the man underneath.  Similarly, Phoebe realises that to Nick she is more than just two votes in the election.

Nick’s scars are not the only ones in the book.  Phoebe’s marriage to Will had been somewhat of a challenge in that they bickered often and things didn’t really get resolved, but they were mostly happy until Phoebe miscarried their child when she was five months pregnant. The experience was devastating for her and left her somewhat “frozen” inside.  It scars Phoebe at least as much as Nick’s injury scars him – but her scars are on the inside where nobody can see them.  This is a bit of a hot button for me and to be honest, I may not have picked up the book had I known of Phoebe’s loss.  It’s something I find incredibly difficult to read about.  Done well it is too emotionally draining for me and done poorly, where such a loss comes across as flippant or merely a plot device, is even worse.  Here, I found the handling of the topic both sensitive and honest, while at the same time the narrative didn’t dwell in the grief and loss to the point that I felt manipulated as a reader.  It is possible however that I may have kept myself at somewhat of a distance to the text here and that may have affected my overall feeling about the book.  It may also explain why the quotes I chose were about Nick’s scars and not Phoebe’s.

 “They held me down to operate on my leg.” Of all the things one shouldn’t talk about in bed, that filthy operating room topped the list. But letting her see his body and his thoughts was all of a piece. The words flowed with the same swirling tension as his arousal. “But it was understood that an officer shouldn’t struggle. He shouldn’t make a sound.”

She sat on the edge of the bed. She listened with her whole body, mouth frowning, head tilting, shoulders leaning towards him, dark eyes focused on his face. He knew he must look ridiculous, but if she noticed, she didn’t show it.

“I’ve never felt pain like that before or since,” he told her. “But every time I moved or winced or strained against their grasp, I knew I’d failed in my manly duty. And I remember the shame more vividly than the pain.”

She leaned down and kissed him; he gathered her up against his side with his free arm.

“It’s hard to be a woman.” She sighed. “Sometimes I forget how hard it is to be a man.” She traced a finger over his scar. He tensed, holding himself carefully still. The skin there was sensitive; her touch tickled and teased. “Is it perverse that I want to lick it? To you it means pain and shame. But all I see is you.”

I liked the way scars and limitations – imposed by loss or class or society was handled here.  It seemed matter of fact to me, neither something to be pitied nor something to be lauded as noble.  It just was; a part of that person’s lot.  The reality is that Nick’s disability is fairly minor in the big scheme of things – it is terribly important to him of course, but let’s face it, things could be much worse.  Even he knows that and this is part of what he struggles with actually.  He knows he’s not too badly off but he’s still resentful.  It felt like a realistic portrayal of disability to me.  (My work involves helping people with disabilities but I do not have one myself and I don’t purport to speak for everyone here of course.)

But he could feel her fingers on it. He felt it when she leaned down and ran the tip of her tongue up it. She couldn’t really see, that close, and he felt it when she missed the jagged bit at the end. To her, it was just a part of him, like his fingernails or the dark blond hair on his chest.

Then he saw what he had tried to do: take his pain and his shame and put them in the scar, pretend they weren’t really part of him. But they were, and they couldn’t be amputated or lanced. He had to feel them.

He didn’t want to.

Over the course of the book, both Nick and Phoebe come to realise the limitations their respective scars have placed on them – or perhaps more correctly, that they have imposed on themselves as a result, and both start to let those things go and heal.

It wasn’t his leg that kept him from feeling like a whole man, he realized. It was something far deeper, a lack within himself. He had never wanted anything with such a bone-deep conviction. Sometimes, it seemed, he could go all day without wanting anything at all.

The plot is cleverly woven to make it seem impossible that everyone (who deserves it) can have a happy ending and the conflicts are realistic and believable.  Phoebe has good reason for her actions even when I didn’t always like them. The election, the votes, family reputation, personal reputation, sacrifice, practical financial considerations are all mixed in and for a little while there it really seemed like there was no way out.

I’m happy to say that there is (it is a romance after all) but it’s not a deus ex machina and having a happy ending doesn’t mean that there are not challenges of the practical and financial variety for the various couples to work out (there is more than one romantic relationship in the book but the main focus is very much on Phoebe and Nick).  I was delighted that the conflict while it did seem impossible, didn’t take a long time to resolve and that it was resolved in a believable way which kept to the tenor of the rest of the book, even if it was just a little convenient and neat.  (This is not a complaint. I like convenient and neat.)

I thought Sweet Disorder was a lovely read, enjoyable and engaging and cleverly drawn.  I wavered between a B and a B+.  My first instinct was a B but then I wondered if I’d distanced myself somewhat from the text because I think it really should be a B+.



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