REVIEW: True Pretenses by Rose Lerner
Dear Ms. Lerner,
I’ve had a mixed experience with your books. I really enjoyed In For a Penny, outside of the over the top villain and ending; I found A Lily Among Thorns completely forgettable; and while I liked what you tried to do with Sweet Disorder, I did not share Janine and Kaetrin‘s enthusiasm for it. Still, the description of True Pretenses made me curious enough to try it. Here’s part of it:
Through sheer force of will, Ash Cohen raised himself and his younger brother from the London slums to become the best of confidence men. He’s heartbroken to learn Rafe wants out of the life, but determined to grant his brother his wish. It seems simple: find a lonely, wealthy woman. If he can get her to fall in love with Rafe, his brother will be set. There’s just one problem— Ash can’t take his eyes off her.
As their last name indicates, Ash and Rafe are Jewish in a time and place in which Jews were not welcome or well-regarded. I told Janine when I first picked this up for review that Jewish heroes are so few and far between in the genre that I was happy to see one, but also disappointed that you chose to make the Jewish hero a conman. On the other hand, you’ve written some interesting and refreshing characters and I expected you to give Ash more depth than that.
True Pretenses is your second book set in Lively St. Lemeston, and takes place shortly after the events of Sweet Disorder. While the characters in Sweet Disorder were identified with the Whigs, Lydia Reeve’s family has held the Tory (usually referred to in the book as the Ministerialist Party or the Pink and Whites) interest in the town for many years. Lydia’s father, Baron Wheatcroft, was recently killed in a carriage accident. Thirty year old Lydia had been his political hostess for many years and has overseen a vast amount of charitable work and other behind the scenes assistance to the people of Lively St. Lemeston. With her younger brother Jamie having little interest in such things, Lydia cannot continue with her work unless she can access her own inheritance, which is contingent upon her marriage.
Ash’s original plan is not, as the description suggests, to find a wealthy woman, but rather to find an opportunity for a swindle large enough to allow his younger brother Rafe to purchase an army commission. Ash grew up in some of the worst parts of London, working for various gangs, and has been responsible for Rafe since the age of nine. He adores his brother and would do anything for him, but realizes that Rafe cannot continue swindling people, even if the two of them “don’t take more than they can afford to lose”. When Lydia’s political agent accidentally tells Ash that she is in need of a husband, Ash sees the perfect solution to his problems, without actually having to cheat anyone: he will get Lydia and Rafe to fall in love, and the two will marry – solving Lydia’s problems and allowing Rafe to settle down rather than pursue an army career:
Rafe couldn’t possibly resist all this. It was perfect, the perfect honest life left lying about on a silver platter waiting to be stolen. It gave a man itchy fingers just looking at it.
The problem, of course, is that Lydia and Ash like each other quite a bit. I knew that the book would not work for me if Lydia is kept in the dark for too long as to the brothers’ plans, and I’m happy to say that she is not. Rafe submits the matter to her as a business proposition, which she considers even though she prefers Ash. When she discovers that Ash’s background isn’t what she had been led to believe, she’s shocked and reacts badly at first; Lydia is not immune to the prejudices of her time. She eventually recovers her composure, though, and remains interested in marrying him.
This happens as Rafe learns that Ash has been keeping a huge secret from him and walks away, leaving Ash on his own.
Like Ash, Lydia has been responsible for her younger brother since childhood. Jamie is socially awkward and doesn’t want the responsibilities that his father had. He’s not interested in politics, or in the vast charitable works his sister manages, or in marrying and having children (Jamie is gay). He wants to live quietly and explore botany and agriculture, something he was never allowed to do as part of a political family. The relationship is imbalanced in terms of power: Lydia has played an almost maternal role in Jamie’s life, but she cannot compel him to do what she wishes, and he controls the funds that she needs and consequently, her future. They need to learn how to communicate and be truthful with each other, and how to be siblings and allies.
I really liked both Ash and Lydia. Ash is good at pulling off swindles because he’s smart, perceptive, and genuinely cares about people and likes them – as he tells Lydia, he does mean what he tells people, he just doesn’t tell them the whole truth. He’s had a horrible childhood and for him, the life he and Rafe made for themselves is a success, even if not an honest one. But he doesn’t feel sorry for himself or wish he’d had something different:
Rich folk go on as if not being born one of them is the saddest thing in the world. As if we must go about weeping and wailing and wishing we could change places. Well, Miss Reeve, I like your house, and I like your fine tea, but I wouldn’t like to be you.” She bristled, and he laughed. “It’s nothing against you. I’d just rather be me. I’d always rather be me. Would you really give up your own life to get something you thought was better?”
Despite all his difficult experiences and his unscrupulous choice of career, Ash is a genuinely kind and caring person. Lydia is, too, although in her case this stems not from her own experiences with deprivation but from a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility, and she can come across as cold to others. Her motivation for marrying and getting her hands on her inheritance is not to keep herself in style, but to be able to continue helping others, both directly and indirectly.
There don’t seem to be many Jewish characters in the romance genre, and despite my original misgivings about Jewish swindlers, I felt that Ash and Rafe’s religion and cultural background were portrayed well. Although the brothers are Jewish, it is something that they’ve had to keep to themselves, one of the many pretenses Ash must engage in to survive and succeed. Ash and Rafe’s religion and sense of otherness were well-written and I felt that they were in keeping with who they were and the times they lived in.
There is a lot to like about True Pretenses. Ash and Lydia are adults who act like it. They enjoy each other’s company, they communicate, they try to be honest and fair. They get to know each other gradually and don’t pretend not to feel attracted to one another. The problem, for me, is that with such reasonable characters there’s not much to sustain tension and conflict, and the story suffers. Once Lydia knows the truth about Ash, a large portion of the book is devoted to their interactions against a backdrop of small town life as Christmas approaches. I’m afraid this just didn’t interest me very much, and I was mostly waiting for the inevitable discovery by others that Ash was not who he appeared to be and to see how this would be resolved. The sibling relationships might have added interest, but Jamie often came across as merely petulant, while Rafe spent much of the story off the page. I am also not a huge fan of the love scenes you write; they would probably be described as earthy and realistic by others, but I guess they’re not my preferred variety of earthy. In addition, considering Lydia’s upbringing and position in the town, some of her behavior and the risks she took struck me as unlikely.
In other words, I thought the characters were interesting and likable (especially Ash), and I liked the first part of their story, but lost interest as it developed. I think it would have worked much better as a shorter and more focused novel. B-.
p.s. I hope Rafe ends up marrying a nice Jewish girl.