True Pretenses | Lively St. Lemeston #2 | ASIN B00M3XTPXK | Samhain Publishing, 2015 | 5 out of 5 Points
“Never steal a heart unless you can afford to lose your own. Through sheer force of will, Ash Cohen raised himself and his younger brother from the London slums to become the best of confidence men. He’s heartbroken to learn Rafe wants out of the life, but determined to grant his brother his wish. It seems simple: find a lonely, wealthy woman. If he can get her to fall in love with Rafe, his brother will be set. There’s just one problem—Ash can’t take his eyes off her.
Heiress Lydia Reeve is immediately drawn to the kind, unassuming stranger who asks to tour her family’s portrait gallery. And if she married, she could use the money from her dowry for her philanthropic schemes. The attraction seems mutual and oh so serendipitous—until she realizes Ash is determined to matchmake for his younger brother. When Lydia’s passionate kiss puts Rafe’s future at risk, Ash is forced to reveal a terrible family secret. Rafe disappears, and Lydia asks Ash to marry her instead. Leaving Ash to wonder—did he choose the perfect woman for his brother, or for himself? Warning: Contains secrets and pies.”
I first became aware of “True Pretenses” during the big controversy last year (or was it already in 2015?) about the ‘Jewish heroine x Nazi hero’ trope that some mainstream romance novels have been using. Besides outrage, one reaction by the Jewish romance community was to highlight works with Jewish heroes, which are sadly few and far between. However, since Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses came up again and again and since I liked the plot premise – a marginalized conman tries to find a good life for his little brother but finds love himself – I decided to give it a try, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.
THE TROUBLE WITH LITTLE BROTHERS
I am a big sister to a little brother myself, and so I tend to sympathize with characters with little brothers quite a bit. Sibling conflicts are a central part of “True Pretenses”, not just to the plot, but also to the characters’ personalities, histories and motivations – both Ash’s and Lydia’s plans for their future are caused by their brothers not understanding their wishes and not wanting to continue on the way of life that they have been on before, and both Ash and Lydia act like they do because their brothers have a certain amount of power over them – in Lydia’s case, this power is more literal, since her brother Jamie controls her fortune, while in Ash’s case, the power Rafe holds over him is more psychological, since Ash has basically lived his whole life just to make sure that Rafe is well cared for.
But let’s talk about both of our protagonist in detail. First, there’s Lydia, a young noble woman whose politically very active father just passed, leaving all of his belongings to Lydia’s younger brother, Jamie, who believes that both his and Lydia’s past political engagement were just a means to please his father, and who would far rather spend his days in his garden (and with his very attractive gardener) than do any kind of charitable or political work. Lydia, on the other hand, loves her charitable work, and up to her father’s death she used to do so with his financial means, under the front of helping with his campaigns. She is still grieving her father’s death, a process Lerner describes with a lot of insight and detail, but she also worries about the poorer inhabitants of the village, who she used to support through her work, because Jamie, who, while being a very sweet young man, has a very anti-social streak, is not willing to let her have the money she needs for this support.
Lydia still has one ace up her sleeves: If she marries, she will be given a sizeable amount of money to household with. The only thing she needs to get her hands on that money now is to find a suitable husband.
Ash, the son of a prostitute who died when he was tiny, has spent his childhood stealing on the streets of London and his adult life conning people for money all over England, all so his little brother, Rafe, didn’t need to live in abject poverty. All his life, Ash has done whatever he could for Rafe, but now Rafe doesn’t want their life anymore; he is becoming tired of conning people, so Ash decides that he will steal one last thing for him: A respectable life, even if it means that he won’t be able to live with his brother anymore.
While both Ash’s and Lydia’ actions are influenced by her brother, Lydia’s love for Jamie isn’t self-sacrificial in the way Ash’s is. Lydia never actually had to sacrifice anything, and while she did emotionally care for Jamie when he was younger, she never really had to give something up so Jamie could have a better life. Jamie has political, societal power over Lydia; Rafe has emotional power over Ash. Their relationships with their brothers are completely different, but at the same time these relationships connect them with each other. Lerner portrays sibling dynamics with a lot of knowledge of the human condition and without romanticizing anything, and the relationships are so much more realistic and heart-wrenching for it.
THE PROBLEM WITH HONESTY
Besides the sibling relationships, Lerner does another thing that you will find very rarely in romance novels: She actually has her protagonists be honest with each other nearly from the start. Ash hardly gets his con underway before Lydia figures him out, but even though she knows, she makes Ash a proposal – she’ll marry his brother as long as she will keep control over her fortune. They are on the same page here, even though Lydia soon starts falling for Ash, and Ash for Lydia, and that becomes a problem a lot more interesting than your usual misunderstanding-fueled plot: They already have an agreement, and Ash knows that this life is Rafe’s, not his, because he doesn’t want a honorable life, that is Rafe’s wish, and he has no right to take for himself what he has meant for Rafe, but at the same time, he can’t stop himself from falling more and more for Lydia… After all, it’s hardest to be honest to yourself, isn’t it?
The plot of True Pretenses is great, dense, and full of tension. And it just gives the reader so much more information on the time and the world these characters live in than most historical romances do.
The first example here would be the machinations of village politics in Lydia’s case, which might sound rather boring, but which was really interesting for me, since I generally love all kinds of political intrigue, even if it’s just about local elections in a tiny English village. This background made Lydia all the more three-dimensional, and it really made the reader root for her to get her money.
The second example, of course, is the glimpse into the life of a Jewish person in 19th century Great Britain. We get a lot of backstory for Ash and Rafe, a lot of which takes place in London, and there is just so much detail that ties in both with their religion and with their early life of poverty. Heroes from minority ethnicities are rare enough in historical romance, but having somebody actually write a romance with a Jewish hero and do it so well, with so much background on his life, is basically like a breath of fresh air. I loved Ash a lot, even though it was sometimes frustrating just how much he kept giving without ever really taking back – half the time I just wanted to hug him and tell him that it is okay if he wants something for himself.
I just really loved Ash and Lydia, and even though Rafe and Jamie were both majorly annoying at times, especially since I’ve got a little brother of my own who has kept making trouble since he was about 8, I still grew fond of them at the end. Jamie is one of the few LGBT+ characters you’ll find in straight historical romance, and his sexual orientation was treated extremely respectfully (though I’d really like to read a story about him in the Lively St. Lemeston Series). At one point he and Rafe flirt, and it’s seriously the cutest thing.
So if you like historical romance with a bit of a different plot than your usual fair, and if you like reading about Jewish history and Jewish characters, you really, really have to pick up True Pretenses. It’s a joy to read, from the writing style over the plot to the representation, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
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