A Kiss for Midwinter is my new favorite novella. It has a flawed but interesting heroine, it has a hero who is scientific, compassionate, and basically amazing, and it takes its characters through a powerful emotional journey with lots of angst but also lots of humor.
I never would have thought I'd find this line sexy, but I most certainly do… “Besides, the hymen is just a membrano-carneous structure situated at the entrance of the vagina”. I thought this book was just amazing and my only real criticism is that it is too short.
Kiss takes place partly during and partly after the events of the full-length book, The Duchess War (although I don't think you have to have read Duchess to follow Kiss). The story starts in 1857 with a young doctor, Jonas Grantham, who is supposed to silently shadow an older doctor. He stays silent during a consultation between the older doctor and the family of a young, unwed pregnant girl despite his concerns that the doctor gives not only insulting and moralizing advice but advice that is also actively dangerous.
Five years later Jonas meets the girl again. She is Lydia Charingford (“the eleventh prettiest woman in Leicester”), and she is determined to set all memory of her past behind her. Jonas's attempts to court Lydia have to involve helping her come to terms with her past so that she can see Jonas as something other than a specter of old shame. While that premise may sound grim, and the book is certainly intense, Lydia and Jonas engage in much-needed banter throughout. Lydia's determination to see the best in everything, combined with Jonas' determination to help people as much as he can, make the book uplifting as well as touching.
There were so many things I connected to on a personal level about this book, but I'd have to say the biggest draw is Jonas, a doctor who believes that the truth will set you free. I'm pretty passionate about truth telling myself, especially when it accompanies things like women's reproductive rights, so you can imagine that I have a substantial crush on Jonas. I'm finding it difficult not to just quote the whole novella, but here's a few things Jonas has to say:
“If I've learned anything, it's that we know next to nothing. Disease is a mystery. Health is inscrutable. The body itself is scarcely understood; we can only examine the secrets of the dead. And in all that dark ignorance, we're sometimes granted a rare moment of illumination, of understanding. The truth is a gift”.
“I'm not a virgin. Neither are you. And even if you were, there's no need for either of us to be missish about the matter. If a woman is old enough to push a ten-pound child through her birth canal, she can hear words like 'penis' and 'cervix'. These are medical terms, Miss Charingford, not obscenities”.
A little later in the same conversation he says:
There is no way I can apologize for what I could have prevented with a little plain speaking. All I can hope is that I will never make the same mistake again. I would rather open my mouth and say what is true than shut it for the sake of propriety. You claim you're not angry with me, Miss Charingford, but you should be. You should be.”
So, here's a man who takes responsibility for his actions, who is courageous in giving people the truth, who gives a woman information about how to make choices for her own body, and then gives her permission to actually feel rage, something she has adamantly denied herself, and then he says this:
“You are only the eleventh prettiest woman in all of Leicester until you open your mouth…Once you speak, you have no equal”.
Wow. I just…wow. If that doesn't do it for you, then I don't know what will.
Lydia is a harder character for me to connect to, but I don't think I can fault the writing for that. I suspect many readers will want to shake Lydia by her finely dressed shoulders. She is so consumed with shame that she is positively delusional about Jonas' opinion of her. While Jonas treasures truth, Lydia fears it: “The truth isn't a gift…It's a terror”. Lydia is aware that she lies to herself as a coping strategy. Milan does a good job of conveying Lydia's feelings and motivations clearly, so that as frustrating as Lydia's behavior is, it makes sense given her experiences.
I have a hard time reviewing Milan's books with any kind of critical eye because she goes right for my most personal, deeply held emotional buttons and jumps up and down on them. Surely it had flaws, lemme think…OK, the book felt rushed, as novellas so often do. Lydia goes very quickly from despising Jonas and living in complete denial of her feelings about her past and current life, to having all kinds of emotional breakthroughs and discovering true love. Lydia keeps describing Jonas as being sarcastic and mocking, and I truly couldn't tell how much of that is because she is convinced that he despises her against all evidence, and how much is because he really does use a sarcastic tone. I found that to be confusing and the pace to be contrived.
With regard to assigning this a letter grade, I am giving it an “A-” because it made me all swoony. However, if I were grading it on a scale with Milan's novels, all of which I'd give some degree of an “A” grade, I'd be more inclined to give this novella a “B+”. It's certainly less developed than Milan's full-length novels, and the story feels slighter than the full on angst and drama of something like The Duchess War. I tend to grade novellas generously because I know the short length carries some limitations. In comparison to other novellas, whether those by Milan or those by any other author, A Kiss is definitely an “A” book. I haven't even mentioned how funny the book is, or how unbearably poignant Jonas's scenes with his father are. The story line about Jonas and his father is worthy of its own review – it's just lovely. Lydia's relationship to her father is lovely as well although less explored – her decorating his office is a lovely and moving image. There are so many moments to treasure in this tiny little book. I can't wait for the next one.