I’ve recommended this book to both Jane and KatieBabs, and both of them seemed to be as caught by the story as I was. If you like meaty, thought-provoking historical romance with enigmatic characters and a use of history that illuminates the time period in a new and often difficult way, this is a book for you. This is not light, frilly, lace and ruffles romance set in the Regency; this book is marvelously real. It’s sometimes cold and harsh, and at times sad, but there’s a richness and a poignancy that elevates the entire book to a whole other level of “good.”
It’s actually difficult to explain in a nutshell what this book is about, or to summarize the plot. The story is told through two parallel story lines, one in 1811 and the other a few years later. Sophie Evans defies her family and marries a total scoundrel who treats her horribly and cheats on her flagrantly. She loved her husband, but he was only after her for the filthy lucre. Once he had the lucre and her cherry as a bonus, he went off to spend it (the lucre – the cherry is a one-time commodity, obviously), leaving her with the bills and her own unhappy thoughts. Sophie is strong and figures out a way to make ends meet by a fraction of a centimeter, but her life is not as happy as she would have wished.
Enter Lord Banallt, a friend of her husband’s, and a man who seems to be her husband’s equal in profligate slutdom and utter assholishness. Banallt is inexplicably attracted to her, despite an embarrassing first meeting, and discovers her secret method to financial and mental survival. The dual narratives follow Sophie and Banallt as they navigate their attraction to one another, first while Sophie is married, as is Banallt, and later after both of their spouses have died.
It’s impossible to sum up this book in mere tropes. It’s a story of two people who had to grow up to appreciate each other, and it’s a story of survival and strength, trust and renewal. The characters are older than the standard hero and heroine you encounter in romance. It’s difficult to read at times, and bleak in others, but throughout, both in the past and the present of the story, Jewel weaves a furious sexual tension between Banallt and Sophie that reaches and maintains scorching levels.
Both Sophie and Banallt were revealed slowly, in layers and in tiny moments, and each embodied a larger concept which still has me thinking about this book. Lady Sophie will illustrate for any reader of romance how truly, utterly, and completely powerless women were at that time. Forget fans and flirting, sexual politics and waltzes: men held the money, and if a man who was responsible for you wasn’t any good at holding onto that money, you were screwed. Sophie is at the mercy of a husband who is plain awful, and after he dies, she is in the care of her brother. Her family will not see her, or even acknowledge her, much less support her, because she eloped with her late husband. Her brother is truly caring and more than just a stand-in male to watch over her, but even still, Sophie’s position and security are precarious. There is no guarantee for a woman that the bills will be paid, or that the roof over your head is even yours, if you’re a woman without a firm and iron clad legal document outlining your assets to back you up – and even then you need a man with a mighty wang and a mighty dollar (or pound, or lire, or whatever) to manage it for you. Sophie’s financial powerlessness and the social powerlessness that follows are heartbreaking. There are moments when, as a reader, I really wasn’t sure she was going to be ok.
Banallt, on the other hand, is more than he seems, while also being less than he seems. In the past, he’s a creature with an empty life of drinking, humping and lather, rinse, repeat. Sophie introduces him to the idea that he may have something more to offer, and that he is worth more than the life he’s choosing to live. It’s not at all a typical, “I see her! Due to her nobility and artless grace, I see my life is meaningless, and without her I am nothing! Commence pining!” type of moment. Banallt is too stone cold cool for that nonsense. Banallt recognizes his own potential and discovers his own worth as slowly as he is revealed to the reader. His discovery is not at all due solely to Sophie; Banallt starts to wake up on his own. That said, he resists behaving honorably as long as he can, and he’s ambiguous in a way I’m definitely not used to seeing in a romance hero. He’s a character that walks that line between nobleman and nobility, and doesn’t eagerly embrace the latter.
His enigmatic ambiguity is appealing, though, because the reader, and Sophie, have to decide whether to evaluate him based on his actions, or based on the rumors and stories about him, and how much of those stories are true. Jewel includes the reader in that societal judgment process as much as she forces Sophie to make her own decisions about who Banallt really is, and she, and the reader, only see him in glimpses here and there.
Sophie’s debate over whether to trust him underscores her vulnerability. Even the security of her widowhood is marginal, and Banallt represents a different risk in both of the encounters in the book. So she is afraid to trust him, even though he might ultimately represent both happiness and security, because she fears losing both.
Sophie’s hesitance in trusting Banallt was ultimately one flaw I had with the book. I wanted to shake Sophie for her reticence in trusting him, because I thought from my perspective that he had admirably demonstrated his worth and his worthiness. Jewel’s talent as a writer allows the reader and Sophie to discover and learn about Banallt at the same time, because their backstory and the current narrative are being revealed piece by piece. I as the reader became more sure of Banallt sooner than Sophie did, and not merely because He’s The Hero That’s Why, and was shocked that Sophie didn’t get it, already. She was impetuous and ended up in a bad marriage, so I understand why she was hesitant to follow her feelings and desires a second time after the first time cost her so much in every aspect, but towards the end her reluctance was grating. I went from “Poor Sophie,” to “COME ON NOW SOPHIE. Stop it.”
Interestingly, one of Jewel’s very neat parallels is Banallt saying to her, “Don’t be a fool, Sophie,” and he is only correct that she’s being foolish one of the times he says it.
The concurrent storylines were also difficult for me, because I had to flip back to the start of the chapter to try to figure out if I was reading part of the “now” story or the “then” story. Negotiating a tricky timeline was challenging for me, and I wish the jumps forward and back were marked by something more obvious than a date in a small typeface. Jewel’s writing is so absorbing and contains so much narrative depth that it was difficult for me to yank myself out of the start of the next chapter to double check where I was in the time line. The intricacies of the dual timeline needed better indicators so I knew where I was in the story without having to flip forward and back. This is a book I am glad I read in print because clicking backwards to the chapter start page to double check the date would have bugged the crap out of me.
I figured it out, though, as I continued to read because I’d come to know Banallt along with Sophie both “then” and “now.” Ultimately, the ending of the book is sweet and quiet, almost. Given the scorching attraction between them that appears in their looks at one another, their dialogue, their friendship and their time apart, I wanted more of an explosive, passionate ending, but the quiet simplicity of their final scene fit. Regardless of whether I wanted a giant purple sunrise and sweeping crescendo of music at the end, I truly believed in their happy ever after. Moreover, because of the deftness of Jewel’s writing, I felt more a part of that happy ending than I normally do reading a historical romance. Jewel’s writing made me as the reader a part of the community surrounding Sophie and Banallt, and because of that I was invested in their story with a unique amount of empathy. This book took my breath away.