Just go buy it and read it. Unless you missed the first one. In which case get both. You won’t regret it.
Plot: Our heroine is a Difficult Woman (my absolute favourite trope) and a suffragist at a time when most women are property (first of their father’s as children and then of their husbands and good luck to you if you aren’t a man’s property). Understandably, her focus is correcting this heinous injustice and anyone who has a problem with that can go suck it. She’s also incredibly lucky, because while her family has disowned her, she is self sufficient, so she doesn’t need to marry just to have a roof over her head so her funds and her time are not controlled by a man. So she decides to buy a publishing house to be able to reach more women to raise the profile of a vote to amend the Married Women’s Property Act to give married women actual rights over their own actual stuff. And her childhood frenemy, a dissolute rake who played stupid pranks on her as a kid, ends up buying up the other half to fund his own escape from injustice. Only maybe he’s not quite so dissolute, or so rakish.
There are so many things I love about this book. While with most regency novels I have to swallow my disappointment when yet another progressive woman agrees to marry a dude and stop existing as a human being because an HEA requires a wedding dress, our Difficult Woman finds her HEA without surrendering her principles. And while she is obviously fictional, there is something overwhelmingly joyous about trying to give women who often had to sacrifice absolutely everything in service of bettering the lives of the people that came after them happy endings. Absolutely everything that I love about my life, I have because of women and men like the people in this book and while I spend a lot of my time and money trying to pay it forward, it literally felt medicinal to take a step back and remember the enormity of the gratitude that I have for the people that came before me. I feel re-energized from reading this book, like a piece of the cynicism that I’ve developed over years of trying to be a better person and advocate has fallen away.
I find Dunsmore’s books to be semi-secret treatises on activism and allyship. Our hero doesn’t start out being particularly supportive of the cause. This is far from unusual, of course, especially in an enemies to lovers story. I often have trouble with these kinds of stories because I find the transition often feels rushed. Characters get get away with doing some pretty terrible stuff because we’re told we’re supposed to like them and they’re like, wounded on the inside or something. It’s okay that he gets violent when he’s jealous because it’s the hero! Not Dunmore. Tristan is a textbook Wounded Alpha that has structured his life around embarrassing his dad for being abusive towards his soft poet heart as a kid. But he doesn’t get to use that to make his flippancy about women’s suffrage and personhood okay or to treat Lucie with anything less than complete respect. Even as they start to like each other and get along, Lucie doesn’t really fall for him until he not only changes his tune on women’s rights but becomes a passionate advocate for it. But it’s not only about his growth as a person, because a lot of the behaviours Lucie practices are defensive tactics that protected her when she was young and insecure and powerless. They saved her then but were now holding her back, and this is all too common in activist circles that are frankly often drowning in trauma triggered behaviour.
Dunmore makes her characters earn their happy ending by engaging in deep, meaningful self exploration, and doing the terrifying, brave thing of acknowledging when you’ve been wrong and working to do better, or things that were right once but weren’t right for you anymore. It makes the numerous tropes she uses, and Dunmore uses a lot of well trod tropes, feel fresh again. They stop feeling like convenient plot devices and instead feel like an attempt to reflect people’s lived experiences in a way that rings true and important.
A couple content notes for readers: there is a scene depicting the violent death of a family pet. There are some descriptions of violence against children. There is a scene that depicts the threat of sexual violence (and one that will likely feel uncomfortably familiar to readers even today). If any of these are especially triggering for you, tread with caution. For what it’s worth, I’m quite sensitive to these topics and I was okay.
My last piece of advice is this: for the love of everything that is good, do not read this book on a week day. I was up till nearly 4am on a work night, and I am so very tired, and I can’t even regret it. Learn from my mistakes. Evie Dunmore books are weekend books.