REVIEW: In For a Penny by Rose Lerner
Dear Ms. Lerner,
I’ve been having a hard time finding historical romances to read, and Janine suggested that I take a look at your older romances. I actually read A Lily Among Thorns a while ago and it didn’t leave much of an impression, but In For a Penny turned out to be much more enjoyable.
Nathaniel Ambrey, Viscount Nevinstoke, is heir to an earldom but has little to occupy him, so he spends his time running around town and having fun with his friends. He meets Penelope Brown at a ball and is drawn to her appearance and interest in music, but does not give it much further thought.
Soon after, however, Nev’s father is killed in a duel. The late Earl of Bedlow was, as Nev notes to Penelope earlier, good at spending money but not at making it. This leaves his family in crushing debts, and although Nev sells everything he can, it’s not enough. When his younger sister Louisa suggests that she might help the family’s financial situation by marrying a merchant, Nev thinks of a better idea: he’ll propose to Penelope, who has a fortune settled on her by her father.
In another book, Nev might have set out to court and seduce Penelope without telling her the reasons until later. Fortunately, In For a Penny is not such a book. Nev tells Penelope exactly what his situation is, but also tells her that he would not have proposed if he did not like her and thought that they could get along well together. Much to her shock and that of her parents, Penelope accepts, and the two are soon married.
Penelope and Nev then set off for his estate, Loweston, where it turns out that things have gone very badly for the tenants in recent years. The two of them are essentially strangers at this point, and they try to find a way to build a life together while also dealing with the many problems and challenges facing them at Loweston. Their neighbor Sir Jasper is convinced that the workers are criminals about to revolt and treats them accordingly, and the local vicar is not helping matters, either. Nev has cut himself off from his friends after his father’s death, convinced that he has to be responsible and avoid any of the temptations that eventually lead to his father’s ruin, and he and Penelope are essentially on their own in a situation that neither has been trained to deal with.
Penelope and Nev are wonderful characters. They’re young, even for a historical, and it shows: nineteen year old Penelope is not long removed from finishing school, where she struggled to fit in. Her parents started out poor, and while they are now wealthy, their money was made from a brewery and they lack social graces and connections. As a result, Penelope has always been made to feel like an outsider who could never be a lady. She doesn’t know how to deal with the angry tenants, and is insecure in her relationship with Nev. While the two get on well, she knows that he would have never chosen her where it not for her wealth. Penelope has a good head for numbers and experience in bookkeeping from her father’s business, but she doesn’t feel like there is much more that she can contribute.
Nev is twenty three, and until his father’s death, he had no responsibilities at all. He has no idea how to fix the situation his father left and being in a position of authority is new to him. He admits to Penelope early on that he is not particularly clever when it comes to business, and is happy to rely on her in this area. While he very much likes Penelope, he feels like he doesn’t have enough to offer her and believes that she deserved a better husband and life.
Although Penelope and Nev don’t believe that they are good enough for the other, it’s easy for the reader to see that they are wrong, and to root for them to get to know each other better and realize this too. Both are very caring and trying to live up to their new adult responsibilities. They share an interest in music and enjoy each other’s company, and they are just a good match in many ways.
I really enjoyed your writing and the dialogue, which reminded of older regency historicals at time rather than the modernized ones that we often see these days. You write about the period in a way that felt fresh and interesting, which is something that I appreciated. I also liked the secondary characters, especially Penelope’s parents. Often when a heroine comes from Penelope’s background, she is embarrassed about her origins and her parents are depicted as being interested mainly in her marrying a title. But Penelope loves her parents, and they are warm and very kind people, both to their daughter and to others. The last thing they want is for Penelope to marry a fortune hunter. They do come to like Nev for the person he is, and are supportive of their daughter and son in law.
In For a Penny was in A-grade territory for me for much of the story, but I did become frustrated with Penelope and Nev’s difficulty in communicating their feelings. At first this really worked for me, because the two barely knew each other when they married and I liked that it took time for them to build a relationship and trust each other. But eventually I just wished that they would stop feeling so inadequate and believe the worst about how the other person felt about them and the relationship. Both Nev’s former mistress and Penelope’s former suitor both eventually arrive at Loweston, though for different reasons, and Penelope and Nev can’t help but wonder if the other wouldn’t have been happier if they had been free to pursue those relationships.
It’s not unrealistic for two people who are young, inexperienced, and who married after a very short acquaintance to take time to learn to trust and communicate. My problem was not so much with the pacing but more because I felt the conflict was resolved artificially, as the story descended into melodrama in the latter part. It felt over the top and unnecessary, and I wish that Penelope and Nev had been given the opportunity to work out their differences and express their true feelings without it. Instead, the resolution struck me as rushed and too tidy. This wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me, but I was expecting something different and this seemed too conventional for the book and the characters. As a result, In For a Penny gets a B from me.
I agree that the ending was utterly ridiculous (my goodness, the villain all but twirled his mustache!) but I love this book all the same. For me, it is exactly what I wanted from Heyer’s A CIVIL CONTRACT but never got: a realistically possible depiction of a happy cross-class marriage of convenience, without the blatant snobbery and sour taste of “settling”.
That’s it in a nutshell, and it’s pretty fantastic until the over the top ending. Even with that, I would definitely recommend it (I just forgot to add the recommended read tag). Give me more realistic stories about people falling in love and building a life together, and less high concept/cutesy plot/secret society historicals any time.
I liked this book a lot, but love Sweet Disorder even more, which is about the politics of the time. Ms Lerner’s books are so realistic and you get a slice of the lives of all classes
I’m waiting patiently for September when Lily Among Thorns will be out in e. :-)
I’ll have to put this book on my TBR, as I enjoyed Heyer’s A Civil Contract until the end, when it did seem, unfortunately, like settling.
I loved IN FOR A PENNY and the ending didn’t bother me, or at least I don’t remember it doing so … maybe because Nev and Penny are so very very young and gauche and self-conscious and uncertain, it kind of made sense for me. It’s true that the villain is a moustache-twirling caricature, but even he is given a war experience that warped and twisted him.
What raised IFaP a cut above the norm of historical romance is the fine prose and the fact that even beyond how good a cross-class romance it is, there’s a playfulness to Lerner’s references. For example, I loved that Nev read the melodramatic novels of the day while Penny, pun intended (see what I mean) was so good with balancing the books. He read them; she balanced them … so clever. True to the mores of the day and yet subverting them too. I can’t wait to read LILY and SWEET DISORDER, which is queued up for my summer holiday reading.
This. These issues are some of the reasons why I’ve pretty much stopped reading most newly published historicals.
I loved this book. Yes, the ending was a bit over the top, but I didn’t mind because I liked Nev and Penny so much. I have a great weakness for characters who are trying to do the right thing.
Really enjoyed this one. Sweet Disorder is even better :)
I’m glad this worked out for you, Rose. I want to clarify that I made my suggestion to you on the basis of having read and loved Sweet Disorder, and not on the basis of having read the earlier books– I still need to read this one and A Lily Among Thorns.
I have now added the tag for you.
Very nice review! I read this a few years ago. It was my first book by this author, and is still my favorite of hers. I liked Sweet Disorder, too, but I liked these characters more (despite the melodramatic plot devices).
I read this when it first came out and I loved it. I still think it’s her best book. I liked Sweet Disorder very much but A Lily Among Thorns didn’t really push my buttons. Regardless, I think Lerner is a fine writer and I’m looking forward to reading more of her books – she’s one of the few current authors who tempt me back into historicals these days.
@Miss Bates: Oh, I liked that they were young and gauche and self-conscious and uncertain; it’s something that can be glossed over or worked through too quickly in some romances. But it’s also why I didn’t need or want the over the top villain to add to the challenges they were already facing.
@Mandi: Opinions seem to be pretty divided as to which one is better – I guess I’ll have to read it and decide for myself :)
@Janine: Thanks – for the original suggestion & the tag.
I just finished this book and loved it! The end was a bit rushed but didn’t feel too over the top for me. I liked Nev and Penny very much.