This is an emotionally lovely historical romance featuring a trans woman and her childhood best friend and so much pining!
Two years after the war, things are not going well for either Viola or Gracewood. Viola used it as an opportunity to change her future, but while she’s happy as a lady’s companion to her sister-in-law Lady Marleigh, she’s still wary of moving about in greater society. Gracewood has taken the death of his best friend particularly hard, and once word reaches Lady Marleigh of his state, she decides the only thing to be done is to visit in person – with Viola in tow, of course. Viola wants to see him again – wants to help him – but doesn’t know if she can do that without hurting herself or him. Once they arrive, Gracewood is strangely taken with the woman and can’t help but feel eased by her company. But when hurt and recriminations come boiling over, Viola and Gracewood may lose each other again.
“She had as good as forbidden herself to think of Gracewood for the past two years—for he belonged with the past she had surrendered to the only future she could bear.”
Viola is simply wonderful. While she regrets some things (namely letting Gracewood believe she’s dead), being able to finally be true to herself was something she could not refuse. She’s settled in to life with her brother and his family, telling herself she’s content to be the doting spinster aunt while imagining Gracewood with a loving family of his own. But when it’s clear that’s not true, she puts aside her own fears and goes to his rescue. Even after being drunkenly shot at by him, she can’t help but confront and comfort him. Her strength, her bravery, her vulnerability… I love her!
While it was easy to love Viola, Gracewood, well, he took a little longer. In his defense, at the beginning of the book he’s buckling under an enormous amount of trauma from both the war and his childhood, but his reaction to discovering Viola’s identity is, well, awful. But it doesn’t take him long to realize exactly how badly he screwed up, and both characters are thrown into a new angst spiral. Viola is wrestling with the knowledge that if she’d been born the way she should’ve, she probably never would’ve met Gracewood, and she certainly wouldn’t have developed such a close friendship with him. Meanwhile, Gracewood has to face the uncomfortable truth that despite considering her his closest, dearest friend, he never truly knew her. But when circumstances (or sister-in-law machinations) bring them back together, he realizes that she’s the one for him, and to heck with the consequences. Viola’s well aware of the sacrifices she made for her new life, and losing Gracewood was possibly the worst. The thought of having him back is tempting, but with society being what it is, she’s certain that it’s only a matter of time before she has to give him up again.
“Men and women are permitted to interact in three ways: marriage, ruination, and polite indifference.”
For a moment, Lady Marleigh was silent.
“Give me a minute. I’m just trying to think of counter-examples.”
Viola gave her a minute.
“Oh dear,” said Lady Marleigh finally, “that’s a bit dreary, isn’t it?”
This is an Alexis Hall novel, so of course there’s a lot of humor to offset all that angst. Much of it’s in the form of Badger and his wife Louise (the aforementioned Lady Marleigh), who are an unconventional but deeply in love couple. Gracewood’s sister Miranda is also a constant source of comedic material, though I felt her character was a bit too much of a caricature for me. There’s also a completely unexpected (to me at least) and OTT action-adventure bit at the end of the novel which toed the zaniness line, but watching Viola and Gracewood work as a team was worth it. But the best part is the banter between the two of them. Some of it’s angsty, some sharp, and some unbelievably sweet and romantic. The chemistry between Viola and Gracewood was off the charts, but at the same time, so many of their interactions (shaving his face!) were unbelievably tender.
“Damn the world. The world told you that you had to live the life it shaped for you, and you defied it. The world told me that I had to be as my father was, and I defied it, or am trying to. We can make our own world, Viola, with our own rules.”
Please note that I’m speaking as a cis woman here, but one of the nice parts of this book is how transphobia isn’t the be-all end-all of the plot. Obviously, Viola still lives in a hostile world, but her family is absolutely loving and supportive of her, as is Gracewood’s around his PTSD. That doesn’t stop Viola from believing that she can’t have her dream of a husband and children, nor does it stop Gracewood from thinking himself weak, because hello gender constructs. It’s their love for each other that shows them how they’ve been limiting themselves, and it’s what frees them to live their lives with joy and love. And that epilogue? Simply everything.
Overall, easily 4.5 stars, and definitely a book I’ll be revisiting when I need a dose of joy.
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.