Julie Anne Long is a terrific author. She has a gift for creating fully realized characters out of even the most periphery characters that have virtually no space on the page. She treats her characters with intense, borderline radical compassion in a world that loves to categorize people into Good or Bad as quickly and irrevocably as possible.
This talent is probably why I am so deeply disappointed in this book.
Like No Other Lover is the second book in Pennyroyal Green series, which follows two families with a blood feud going back hundreds of years and is posited to have started over the theft of a cow, though no one can say for certain. This book follows the second son of the Redmond family. They are the World’s Most Uptight family and proud of it. So their world is thrown into disarray when the heir takes off with *gasp* a daughter of their hated rival family, leaving our hero as the “heir regent”. Miles Redford is a biologist focused on insects. He’s also, as the book refuses to stop telling us, a damned Sex Machine. More on that later. Anyway, he wants to go back to Lacao, where he’d been studying plants and to do that he needs an heiress because his own dad won’t pay for it for reasons that really aren’t made clear.
Cynthia Brightly is a gold digger, because she is a pretty young woman with no family or money and it was either that or service. A lot of readers struggled with this but I think they were applying modern options to a time that didn’t actually have them. She spends a lot of her time obsessing over the emptiness of her purse and her clothes literally coming apart at the seams. Her fear leaps off the page. I can’t bring myself to begrudge Cynthia for trying to make the best choice possible out of a lot of terrible ones.
Some reviewers describe her as a Mean Girl, and while I don’t disagree, having been poor and then not poor myself, I completely relate to having power for the first time ever and being a bit irresponsible with it while I learn what’s what. It struck me as the kind of behavior she would grow out of but your tolerance may vary.
They meet at a house party and the basic set up is that he makes it clear off the bat that she isn’t shackling him but he’ll help her with information about the other single men at the party. Obviously, that doesn’t quite work out and they end up with pants feelings. There is love at first sight here, which I am decidedly against, but I try not to hold books to my personal standards that way.
Long does a wonderful job of positioning Cynthia and Miles to explore privilege afforded by class, gender, and even having vs not having a family’s support. All the little things a person takes for granted that other people are expected to manage without. Which is why this book falls down for me.
First, we are introduced to our hero. Miles is, as I mentioned, a Sex Machine. He’s so good at The Sex he’s developed a reputation and the widows and married ladies of London are basically lining up by his bedroom door for a chance to see his incomparable talent in person. How did he develop such a talent? In Lacao, a fictional place in the South American jungle, where “dusky-skinned women as entangling as the flora shared his bed at night.” Oof. “Native women” come up again and again. Nameless, faceless, topless statues which exist solely to remind the reader of Miles’ sexual prowess.
I cannot describe how uncomfortable this makes me. Indigenous women in Canada, for example, are at least three times more likely to experience sexual violence. The same is true of intimate partner violence (regardless of the race of the partner). Indigenous women make up 4% of women in Canada and 22% of homicide victims (2017 data). These statistics are not unique to Canada. The objectification of Indigenous women (particularly in relation to white men) in Western culture has a history as long and as bloody as colonization as a whole, and for a modern book (this was released in 2009), particularly one that for other characters goes out of its way to make them real, fleshed out, and likable, is jarring. Why not leave his experience at instructive widows? Why not give these Lacao women a bit more depth? Surely he’d have worked closely with medicine women who would have been the most experienced with the natural properties of the land he was on. Could they not have gotten the same compassionate treatment as other characters?
This undercurrent of racial bias doesn’t stop there. There is a subplot dealing with a community of Roma who have a regular encampment not far from the Redmond’s house. Beyond referring to them by the slur “gypsies” they are also described basically as charismatic thieves and liars, with the implication that they can do much worse. The characterization never goes deeper and no one is challenged on their preconception. At one point, a character says that of course they wouldn’t ride a horse into the camp, it would just get stolen, and this is accepted as fact. Again, this was a perfect opportunity to build on the premise of the book that privilege doesn’t dictate goodness, but that narrative wasn’t available for them.
I also have to yet again come back to Miles and his sexual prowess, because the problems don’t actually stop at race. As I mentioned, the basic inciting plot point is that he agrees to help Cynthia snare a husband by telling her details that would assist her in the search. What does he get for it? Why, he wants a kiss. She says she doesn’t want to kiss him, and he doesn’t care. He refuses to help her unless she does. For a book (and author) that is generally very good on consent, this casual dismissal of what Cynthia actually wants because Miles Just Can’t Help Himself is so awful I never really warmed up to him. They do kiss, and she gets into it, plus they fall in love and get married so it’s fine, right? No. No it is not. This is one of those red flags that this guy will let you be yourself right up until it goes against what he wants, in which case he’ll just take and take until there’s nothing left to give. This is never discussed. He never apologizes. This is absolutely not okay.
Last note on Miles’ prowess because yes, I just have that many problems with it. He has that “magic touch” a lot of romance dudes have where he knows just where to touch and how. This is explained by virtue of his endless experience with women. Except if he was indeed that experienced, would he not know that women vary widely? That erogenous zones vary not only between women but even in the same woman at different times in her menstrual cycle? That different things arouse different women? How are we STILL perpetuating this area that a woman’s body can only be one way?
This book is sort of a reminder to me that learning about privilege is a process. Even when you’re trying to address important issues and do right by them, you can fall short of your own goals, but I genuinely believe there is still always merit in the effort.
Anyway, if you can get past these issues, and I’m not here to tell you whether they are deal breakers or not, the rest of the book is still well written, the characters are interesting, and the wry humor startled belly laughs out of me. But if you’re going to read a Julie Anne Long book, this isn’t the one I’d recommend. Give the first one in the series a shot (Perils of Pleasure) or Lady Derring Takes a Lover, the first in her new series. All the genuinely wonderful stuff from this novel, without the problematic bits.