I was so excited about this book. After reading most of Kate Noble's previous historical romances and recommending them to people who had historical London romance fatigue, I was hopping in my chair eager to read this book. It wasn't as oh-my-gosh-good-book-sigh-for-two-hours as other books of Noble's that I've loved, but it was still wonderfully intelligent and unique historical romance. While the emotional connection between the hero and heroine sometimes disappointed me, the setting and the conflict between them, and most especially the use of music, made up the difference. This, like many of Noble's books, is an extraordinary and unique romance worth savoring.
Bridget is the younger sister of Sarah Forrester, the heroine of If I Fell, and she's been overshadowed by Sarah most of her adult life. Her debut season was a bitter experience for her, because Sarah, after reinventing herself when she was humiliatingly jilted by a duke, stole the attention from Bridget. Bridget's unhappiness from that experience was palpable, and she developed a reputation in society for being unpleasant – which cast her even more in the shade of her sister, who was known was “The Golden Lady.”
Bridget's solace is her skill as a pianist, and she ignores her social disappointments by focusing on her practicing, though she seldom performs in front of other people outside of her family due to stage fright. When Bridget receives a letter inviting her to study in Venice with a world-famous piano composer, Vincenzo Carpenini, several events coalesce into making her journey possible, and before she knows it, she's on her way to Venice with her mother and her younger sister.
When she arrives, she is determined to meet the composer and begin her lessons as soon as possible, so she sneaks away from the hotel and finds his apartments. But she is greeted by the composer, who has no idea who she is and thinks she's a whore paying a housecall – and by Oliver, who knows exactly who she is, because he wrote the letter posing as Vincenzo.
Vincenzo, once famous and part of a very wealthy lord's household, has been thrown out and is on his own, suffering from writer's block, and sponging off Oliver, who has more money, but barely. Oliver is English, but he is also half Italian. His mother was a famed singer, and he's come to Venice to learn more about his late mother, and to follow his dream of being a theatre owner. He loves drama, he loves plays, and he doesn't want to be on stage – he wants to be behind the scenes, arranging everything and creating a show and spectacle to entertain others.
Bridget thinks she has come all that way for nothing, and is trying to figure out a way out of the predicament she's in, when Vincenzo gets himself into trouble by boasting of his talent as a teacher in front of his former patron, who has since found a new musical protege. Vincenzo and the protege (a very one-note malevolent glareweasel with one mode which is crazyhatesauce and therefore he's boring) are challenged to a battle of teaching: because Vincenzo has boasted that he has a female student better than any male student, he must bring his female student to a performance competition, where the protege will bring his best male student, and they will both be judged.
For Vincenzo, this is an opportunity to ingratiate himself with his former patron. And for Bridget, this is her opportunity to study with Vincenzo, for he has to take her on as a student to prove himself.
I must confess, the beginning of the novel was very slow. I wasn't sure I liked Bridget, because I remembered enough of her from the prior book, and because she was so surly all the time. I recalled enough of her that I had to remind myself to give her a chance to change, but I was losing patience with her habitual unhappiness by the time they left for Venice.
But once this book got going, I had a hard time putting it down to go to sleep – the night daylight saving's began, I was up past midnight (which was 1am, according to my body clock) reading because I couldn't stop. The beginning is the slow part, and I thought I wasn't going to get into the story, but once they arrive in Venice and begin the musical lessons, the story flies and the quiet deepening of Oliver and Bridget's regard for one another was alluring and addictive for me as a reader.
Oliver is a surprising hero. I loved so much about Oliver. I loved his quiet intelligence and his creative solutions to help Bridget get over her fears and insecurities. I loved how theatre and performance were part of how he thought and looked at things, as music was part of Bridget's worldview. Oliver was a genuinely kind person who is a bit lost – literally and figuratively – and finds his magnetic north in Bridget. He doesn't worship her or follow her blindly, but once he realizes his feelings for her, he quietly arranges things to help Bridget, to make sure she's safe and secure. He wants her to be happy and well, because it makes him happy to see her happy. He doesn't do things for her because of anything she'll do for him, which is how Vincenzo thinks, but because he cares about her. His generosity is beautiful. I loved his quiet abiding presence, his ability to think of clever solutions and his quiet devotion to Bridget. He reminded me a bit of Jack Langdon from The Devil's Delilah.
Bridget learns that Oliver makes her feel safe. A touch of his hand or a whisper in her ear grounds her, scatters her fears and stage fright, and gives her confidence to work harder on the scary task ahead of her – performing as proof that female student can be as good as a male music student in front of most of Venice's high society.
If Bridget is Oliver's north, Oliver becomes Bridget's home. Bridget has not felt as if she fits in anywhere. After one too many seasons spent in her sister Sarah's shadow, coupled with fear and shyness making her standoffish and brittle, Bridget earned her reputation in London as being grumpy and difficult. Venice and the invitation to study with Carpenini are an opportunity to change everything in her life. Though her fears and insecurities follow her to Venice, they're a bit easier to beat down when she's not surrounded by the same people with the same negative expectations. With Oliver, she feels safe and welcome, accepted, admired, and appreciated exactly as she is, and that acceptance allows her to grow up a bit, and kick some metaphorical ass when asskicking is needed.
The place and the involvement of music in this story are extraordinary. Venice is an indelible part of the story – and the society of Venice, the canals, the old buildings, the number of things that make it unique and very different from London, are fascinating.
And music really is part of the story. You will walk away form this book with a deeper understanding of Beethoven, piano concertos, and even the challenges of being a pianist. At least, I did. I felt as if the piano concerto was such an integral part of the story that I had to go listen to it while I read.
This is Beethoven's Sonata No. 23 Op. 57, the piece of music Bridget must learn for the competition. It is very difficult, but the music becomes an echo of the development of the story. It illustrates Bridget's character, it highlights the importance of music in her life and in the lives of the other characters, and it serves as both a goal and a reflection of the characters' aspirations.
Here, enjoy it with me. The first video is the first movement. The second is the 2nd and 3rd movements together, played by Sviatoslav Richter in 1960. The heroine has to play that piece after learning it in a few weeks' time in a competition.
As I wrote on Goodreads, the best part was the use and inclusion of music in the story. Listening to the piece while reading the competition scene was delightful in so many ways – and I already love classical music while I'm reading.
Because I have such high expectations of Noble's writing, it may seem that the things that I disliked are too nitpicky, but I have come to anticipate wonderful risks and challenges to the historical romance standards from Noble's books. When those risks don't measure up, while I do admire that they were there, I am bummed when they let me down. For example, Oliver makes a huge mistake late in the book. Huge. Dishonorably big, and it cost him a great deal of the good regard I had for him up to that point. I never felt that he sufficiently made up for it, and because of the risk his character took, the result is uneven. I had to convince myself a bit that it was ok, because Bridget was ok at that point, even though I was still seriously ripshit mad on her behalf.
Oliver doesn't change hugely in the story, apart from screwing up and making amends. The unfinished business of his familial relationships remains unfinished, and while he comes to some important realizations about his life, and his choices, his change and development is not as significant as Bridget's.
One final word that I will white out as it is a bit of a spoiler: the beginning and ending are framed with an elderly Bridget telling the story of her life after her husband has died. If you're like me, and you like to imagine the characters young, happy, and unchanged after the story ends, the final epilogue and the story of their lives after the ending might seem bittersweet and painful. It's realistic, and it was lovely to see how Oliver and Bridget's lives changed and grew, but knowing the full scope of their ending was also sad for me. I do realize how ridiculous it is for me to go on about how I prefer characters who are realistic, but the written evidence of them being like real humans and, you know, dying, gives me the sads. I own this ridiculousness, and still felt the need to warn you.
Let It Be Me combined a wonderful location, a talented heroine, a sneaky-smart beta hero, and a truly amazing piece of music. There is also a gentle and wry humor that I thoroughly enjoyed – especially one line late in the book from Bridget's sister that made me laugh out loud so hard I startled the dog. While there were parts I wish had been better, once this book got going, I did not tire of reading or listening to it.