Sensible young widow Martha Russell is all set to cede her late husband’s estate to his younger brother, until she learns of his past villainy towards the housemaids. As a champion of the weak and the poor, Mrs. Russell decides to cast propriety aside and take matters into her own hands. She looks to her new neighbor Theophilus Mirkwood, banished to the countryside for his spendthrift ways, for his assistance in getting her with child. She does not respect him, he does not understand her. Can mutual esteem grow from such a cold bargain?
So begins Cecilia Grant’s explosive debut on the romance scene, where she takes old tropes and reworks them into something wholly original and dare I say it, revolutionary. A Lady Awakened is a glove slapped in the face of the romance industry’s formulaic complacency. This is not just a romance of opposites attract, but of two multidimensional characters becoming a team and helping each other become better people.
Both hero and heroine start out heavily flawed, Theo a charming but useless fribble and Martha humorless and cold. Their early sex scene is one of the most awkward, funny, and character-revealing examples of its kind I’ve ever read, and as things continue to be uncomfortably awful you really have to keep turning the pages to see how they could ever arrive at a happy ending or work as a couple. Luckily the quest for a baby device is a genius plot move in throwing two such disparate people together and forcing them to work for the same goal, and here it manages to feel fresh and convincing rather than contrived and clichéd.
And as Martha and Theo learn more about each other, so too does the reader discover their inner selves under the flawed exteriors and grow to care for them. When Martha and Theo gradually open up to each other more both in bed and out of it, they begin to see things with new eyes and their visions start to align. Although she is serious-minded, Martha is also capable of kindness, selflessness, and devotion, and much of her motivation lies in an admirable desire to improve the lives of the less fortunate around her and give choices to those who have none. Martha’s standoffishness towards Theo and sexual relations conceals her longing to be treated as a confidant and an equal by a man, and while Theo starts off with a disregard for life’s responsibilities, this is not a lack of caring on his part but more a lack of opportunity and teaching. When he finds someone expecting him to actually make use of the advantages he was born with and learn how to take care of the tenants that depend on him, Theo rises to the challenge and discovers he can make of himself anything he chooses.
Grant literally blew my mind with this book. The ways she delves into character to create two believable people who grow over the course of the story and encounter real concerns shows a rare and special talent. There seems almost to be another dimension to the writing, the characters realized in 4D with the way they integrate into their community and have concerns other than just how they will get together. I loved the small countryside setting and our glimpses into the lives of the villagers and tenants. It was fascinating to see how Martha teaches Theo so much about concern for the people around him, yet it’s Theo who shows Martha how to actually interact and become friends with them. This book really shows why romance can and should be taken seriously as a genre, and Grant’s career is one to be watched. Join her as she explores the human heart in A Lady Awakened.