There is little I love more than a story about a bitchy, fallen woman and a sweet, kind man that loves her, but when you make her Jewish I’m going to stop being able to be objective at all.
Plot: Maggie is running a successful business with her best friend where rich men can come to gamble, drink, whore and whatever else they like. This is a huge improvement on her life previously, so since she has money and safety and relative freedom, she should be happy. Only, of course, she is not, though she couldn’t say why. Simon knows very well why he’s unhappy. He’s an aristocrat, but deeply impoverished, and his former best friend and ex does not seem to be getting the message that they are not getting it on again. After a faro game results in the two meeting in earnest after admiring one another from across the room for several months, they strike a bargain. Simon has been charged with designing a folly for his problematic ex, and he can’t turn the money down, but with Maggie at his side as his mistress, he might actually get some work done. And she gets a relaxing vacation. What could go wrong? Shenanigans ensue.
Lerner has a skill for creating characters criminally underrepresented in regency novels and making them feel not novel at all. They are fully formed human beings with social networks and connections deep in a society that pretends they don’t exist. Incidentally, books that involve such characters also seem to be the only ones that acknowledge the persecutions of such people. I wonder why that is. (this is rhetorical. I do not wonder.) This is especially notable here. Maggie is Jewish and has a natural distrust of Christians for *gestures at everything*. This compounds her distrust of men in general due to *gestures at everything*. Simon, on the other hand, is actively bisexual, and has a natural distrust of The Straights for *gestures at everything*. Add to that an inclination towards pain and power play and they are both constantly at risk of being deemed perverts who prove the dangers of “their kind”. Unlike in most regency novels, the stakes for Maggie and Simon actually letting down their guard are literal life and death, and Lerner does a great job of conveying the constant anxiety and the long term trauma they cause. Some reviewers on goodreads said that there are misunderstandings for the sake of The Drama. While I don’t think that is an incorrect way to read the conflicts in the book, I read them as trauma responses. If the last two years have taught us nothing else, is that people acting cruelly, irrationally, and against their best interests, is far from fictional, and in my view at least, they acted consistent with their characterization.
That said, I do think Lerner could have done better to clarify this trauma response. For example, they are staying with Simon’s ex during a house party. This houseful of Christians, for most of whom Maggie is the first Jew they’ve ever clapped eyes on, Christians who did not know a Jew was going to be staying with them, do not have kosher options for her. Maggie is upset. I understand where Maggie was coming from, but I think the majority of readers would not have the necessary lived experience to understand the shorthand of resentment at people of privilege living a life that allows them to simply pretend that people like her don’t exist. I think to most readers, and this bears out in the reviews on Goodreads, it just comes across as petulant behaviour, and that is not unreasonable if they don’t have the context with which to interpret a character’s conduct. It also means that readers interpret Simon’s response to this as being a dishrag or doormat for kowtowing to her petulance, whereas I read it as him being able to understand her resentment because of his own experience with being forced to be invisible for the comfort of others.
Another issue that arises in the text is that, because it is a novella, I simply didn’t get enough time to buy into Maggie and Simon’s connection. They’re already deeply infatuated with one another at the start of the story, but they’ve never exchanged a single word. It reads like an insta-love story where much better negotiation between the characters about what they need and what their future might look like. To me, that is still far more enjoyable than an insta-love story in general, but because I didn’t grow to care for the characters along with them, it left me pretty indifferent to their journey, despite the fact that it ended in a way that is pretty rare in romances (spoiler alert: no wedding! You can just love someone! Crazy!). I think this would have been a stronger story if it was a full length novel and gave us more time to get to know and understand Maggie and Simon. And for readers who don’t have lived experienced with oppression, I think demonstrating that through more substantial conflict (like she did in True Pretenses) would have both strengthened the connection to the characters and given the story more immediate stakes.