REVIEW: Rose Lerner’s A LILY AMONG THORNS, Such Is My Love

In_For_A_PennyIn this past winter’s darkest days, when snow hissed against Miss B’s window and she settled, with a cup of cocoa, into her bathtub-reading ritual, one of the books she read was Rose Lerner’s Regency romance, In For a Penny. She loved that it was a hybrid of cross-class and marriage-of-convenience romance tropes. She loved that heroine Penny (hence, the play on her name in the title) was as capable as she was vulnerable. She loved that the self-centred and inept hero Nev evolved into a good man. She loved that his decency was incipient from the start. When Nev’s youthful, dissipated shenanigans are interrupted by his father’s death, he throws himself into taking care of his family and rescuing the family fortune from his father’s profligacy. To do so, he marries (another play on her mercantile name) wealthy, middle-class Penny, though cultured and better educated than he. In the course of their working together to save the near-ruined family estate and falling in love, Nev acknowledges that he may be titled, but he’s not worthy of Penny. That she loves him and is beautiful in every way? Well, he is blessed. The reader knows that Nev’ll honour and love her till death do them part. If you, dear reader, haven’t read In For A Penny, it’s worth every moment spent in cooling bath water with pruny digits.

A_Lily_Among_ThornsLerner’s second novel, A Lily Among Thorns, originally published in 2011, has been re-issued, as has In For A Penny, by Samhain. Its opening scene echoes In For A Penny‘s drunk Nev and drunk friends out on the town. Miss Bates assumed she was in for more of the same. A young man, Solomon Hathaway, is celebrating his 21st birthday by getting drunk and, with some wild friends, visiting a brothel. Once there, he is struck by a beautiful and tragic prostitute. Without availing himself of her charms and to his own detriment, he gives her the one hundred and twenty-five pounds that was his birthday gift and what he had to live on at Cambridge. But the scene is different from In For A Penny, as are the characters. Solomon’s goodness and generosity are immediately evident. Our aristocratic prostitute-heroine, Serena, is beautiful and alone. They glimpse each other, but there is no marriage-of-convenience to unite them. Instead, six years elapse. Serena is a different woman when Solomon approaches her for help finding a pair of ruby earrings, a precious family heirloom without which his sister, Deborah, to his parents’ and her fiancé’s consternation, will not be married.

While In For A Penny was as perfect a romance novel as the genre produces, A Lily Among Thorns is worth reading, but flawed, a novel better in its parts than its whole. Some parts were marvelous, though. It took Miss Bates a long long time to immerse herself in it, without growing frustrated, or restless. In the last quarter, she fell in love with it. Lerner is a writer with and of ideas. She worked hard to avoid repeating herself in her second novel. She tried out new things: a different kind of hero and heroine, a broader canvas, with a London setting and tale of intrigue in the year of Napoleon’s final defeat. For these reasons alone, Miss Bates was glad to have read A Lily Among Thorns because these are things that make a romance writer’s development interesting to follow, as much into her not-so-successful efforts as her successful ones.

In 1815, Solomon Hathaway, chemist, tailor, and dress-maker, asks Serena Blackthorne, owner of the Ravenshaw Arms, aka Siren, or Thorn, to find his family’s stolen, precious, ruby earrings. For years, Serena has wanted to repay her debt to the young man whose one hundred and twenty-five pounds changed her life, from prostitute to prosperous London eatery and hotel owner. This is her chance. A Lily Among Thorn‘s opening is strong. Serena is a powerful woman now, but she never forgets her scandalous past, her vulnerabilities and sense of powerlessness when she was used by men. Solomon’s appearance is not only an opportunity to redress and recover some of that past, but the entry into her life, for the first time, of someone who wants and loves her for herself. Serena recalls what Solomon did for, and what he meant to, her: “He’d done the same thing six years ago: he’d come into that awful place and looked at her as if he saw her, as if he wanted to see her. And that forced her to see him, and she didn’t want to. She couldn’t afford to, not when she needed all the energy she had for herself, simply to get through each moment.” Solomon is the innocent to her worldliness; the open heart to her closed one. Serena’s problem is that she can’t take what Solomon’s freely giving because she first has to believe she deserves it, deserves him. She has to overcome her fear of abandonment because abandonment and betrayal are all she’s known.

Solomon, beautiful in appearance and purity of soul, falls in instant-awe of Serena. Miss Bates loved his ability to see people for what was best in them, to pursue what he loves, and to be gentle, kind, and good to everyone. Solomon is a wonderful hero; Serena’s ice-queen pretenses hide a woman who would do anything to protect the innocent and weak, while never expecting that for herself. This is yet another strength to the novel: Serena’s difficulty in accepting love, or help, or friendship. She acts on the assumption that everyone wants something of and from her. Until this point, Serena was right …  when confronted with Solomon’s decency, humility, and goodness, she doesn’t know what to make of him. Solomon is outside the realm of Serena’s experience. He proves to be the one who recognizes her worth, her lily-self among thorns.

One of the romance genre’s enduring and endearing themes is this very recognition of the heroine’s and/or hero’s truest self. The romance narrative is where the hero and heroine’s vulnerabilities and fears find a safe harbor in the other. Certainly, these ideas are upheld beautifully in Lerner’s A Lily Among Thorns. Indeed, they dominate the opening and marvelous closing. It’s what happens in between that Miss Bates did not enjoy and where, in her opinion, the novel sinks. Solomon’s family heirloom, Serena’s influence and the information she carries about the powerful men she slept with, her underground connections, and her evil, machinating father (indeed, the reason a well-born girl ended up in a brothel) enter the narrative along with a myriad of secondary characters and plot twists. The romance is submerged in a narrative of intrigue, corruption, and deception. In the midst of this mess, the figures of Solomon and Serena, when brought together, shone bright, but alas too infrequently. Witness these passages, however: “She felt as if she were a neat page in a ledger and he’d spilled ink across her. She could feel it spreading over her skin, soaking in, making her messy and vivid and irrevocably destroyed … When he leaned his weight on her, it felt as if they were melting into each other like sugar and water caramelizing in a bain-marie, slow and delicious.” Only a small sampling of what an original and interesting writer Lerner is: her vivid and unique use of figurative language, wit and humour that are romantic even while tongue-in-cheek. Miss Bates loved the bain-marie and reference to the act of writing. Miss Bates wasn’t enamored with a plot whose numerous threads recall a maze, but no Ariadne to lead us out. Miss Bates desultorily endured those parts of the novel, so she could enjoy Serena and Solomon arguing, bantering, confessing, and making love.

A final nod to Lerner’s wonderful referencing of Biblical language, particularly the Song of Songs: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons,” she quotes. Miss Bates loved Lerner’s use of Biblical imagery to point to the essence of the romance narrative, the moment when hero and heroine say, “I choose you because you are you.” Lerner’s referencing is beautifully integrated in one of the novel’s final triumphant moments. In a garden, under an apple tree, echoing the Biblical Adam and Eve, Solomon and Serena utter avowals of love, fidelity, and commitment: “She opened her mouth and pressed against him, unfurling under his touch like a lily blossoming among thorns, bright and unexpected and vulnerable.”

Lerner’s A Lily Among Thorns is best described by its title: among the thorns of a too-busy plot, too many secondary characters, and convoluted intrigue are the lily-rewards of a great opening, even better HEA, and a deserving, endearing, and admirable couple. Lerner’s A Lily Among Thorns is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.

Rose Lerner’s A Lily Among Thorns, originally published by Dorchester in 2011, has been re-issued by Samhain. It was been available in e-format since Sept. 2nd at the usual vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author (and Samhain) for an e-copy in expectation of a review at MBRR.

15 thoughts on “REVIEW: Rose Lerner’s A LILY AMONG THORNS, Such Is My Love

  1. “Miss Bates wasn’t enamored with a plot whose numerous threads recall a maze, but no Ariadne to lead us out.” I love the way you review, Miss B. Both books are now on my wishlist 🙂

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    • Thank you! That means a lot to Miss B. 🙂

      If you haven’t read much historical romance, Lerner is one of the best writing today, along with Meredith Duran. Miss B. reads a lot less of histrom than she used to, but she’d never miss one of their books.

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      • Enjoyed your review of Lerner’s first two. I can’t wait to read what you think after you read Sweet Disorder, which I think is the best—so far.
        BTW, does Miss Bates have a list of her favourite histroms she’d be willing to share with her admiring public?

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        • Thank you! Miss B. has Sweet Disorder on the TBR Mountain of Reading Eternity! Moreover, she most definitely has a list of histrom faves … crazy busy week, but she’ll write one! Fun! 🙂

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  2. “A final nod to Lerner’s wonderful referencing of Biblical language, particularly the Song of Songs: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons,” she quotes. Miss Bates loved Lerner’s use of Biblical imagery to point to the essence of the romance narrative, the moment when hero and heroine say, “I choose you because you are you.” Lerner’s referencing is beautifully integrated in one of the novel’s final triumphant moments. In a garden, under an apple tree, echoing the Biblical Adam and Eve, Solomon and Serena utter avowals of love, fidelity, and commitment: “She opened her mouth and pressed against him, unfurling under his touch like a lily blossoming among thorns, bright and unexpected and vulnerable.””

    SOLD.

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    • Also, those names are not accidental either. Solomon, of course, is the bridegroom in the Song (by name in chapter 3, and in some sense metaphorically throughout, though it’s a bit complicated because he is clearly not the historical Solomon and indeed is contrasted with the historical Solomon in chapter 8). And Serena is the perfect choice to represent the Shulammite who brings peace.

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      • How wonderful to have your erudite comment: Miss Bates hadn’t thought of the significance of Serena’s name, but it is so enlightening for her to think of it in the terms you describe here. As a matter of fact, names play a significant role in the novel: without giving away too much of the plot, there are mirrors and false and true identities throughout.

        There are also Serena’s aka-s, which are Thorn and Siren, which conjure much about the character. Thorn because she carries danger from her father, Blackthorne. Thorn because that is how she is perceived: as powerful and dangerous and hurtful … but that is not how Solomon sees her. Siren because she’s judged by the men who exploited her as a femme fatale, but they made her. And Solomon doesn’t see her that way either: she is a woman more sinned against than sinning. And her choice, him, Solomon, costs her because, once again, she will be judged for it. But her only concern is that Solomon shouldn’t be shamed or judged for choosing her. She’s pretty wonderful … and Solomon is her equal in every way. It is easy to imagine their future happiness.

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      • Interestingly, when I got to the apple moment, the primary referent I noticed was again to the Song of Songs rather than the Garden of Eden (although of course that is in the background to the Song as well). It follows on from the lines you quoted: “Let him lead me to the banqueting hall (i.e. an inn!) and let his banner over me be love. Strengthen me with raisins and refresh me with apples for I am faint with love.” There’s some gender-swapping because in the Song it’s the woman who is faint, and in the book it’s Solomon, and of course in the book it’s Serena who brings Solomon to the inn.

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        • This is so lovely and adds and adds to Miss B’s appreciation of the Song and this aspect of Lerner’s novel. On the way home today, Miss B. listened to the Man of La Mancha soundtrack and noted Aldonza the “whore’s” songs in particular. She sees herself much as Serena does; Aldonza sings, “Oh I have seen too many beds/But I have/known too little rest/And I have loved too many men/With hatred burning in my breast.” It isn’t until the quixotic knight 😉 sees her in a different light, as Dulcinea, as his “lady,” his precious one that she is made new and sees herself this way too. As does Serena when she recognizes how Solomon sees her, her “price above rubies.”

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  3. “While In For A Penny was as perfect a romance novel as the genre produces, A Lily Among Thorns is worth reading, but flawed, a novel better in its parts than its whole.”

    I haven’t read A Lily Among Thorns yet, but I disagree with this description of In for a Penny. I thought way too many catastrophes were heaped on Penny and Nev in that book. So much misfortune, crisis after crisis, that it got hard to believe in the HEA. I was rooting for them the whole time, but by the end I felt the kitchen sink had been thrown at them. And I love Sweet Disorder, her third book.

    Also, I wish romance authors would stop quoting from the Song of Songs. I can hardly bear reading it in English because so much is lost in translation, from alliteration to double meanings and more.

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    • Hmmm, Miss B. doesn’t recall thinking that there were many disasters heaped upon Nev and Penny: certainly, yes, their lives were not easy on the estate, thanks to Nev’s worthless father. And certainly, the villainous neighbour was an added burden that may have been de trop. However, for Miss B. the HEA depends on the characterization, that is, the “convinceability,” of the hero and heroine more than their external circumstances. She doesn’t expect romance to be anything less than exaggerated, even fantastical … verisimilitude is not its forte. 😉 She doesn’t recall events to be out of the realm of possibility.

      As for the Song of Songs, Miss Bates has no doubt that much is lost in translation. And if one reads in the original, it is difficult NOT to see the flaws and misinterpretations. Miss B. has Russian friends who are quite frustrated by English translations of the Russian greats. At the same time, to read “through a glass darkly” is better than not at all. Moreover, the Song of Songs, or any part of the Hebrew, or Christian Bible, has had a tremendous influence on English literature, as Northrop Frye argues in The Great Code, so for any English writer to allude to it seems natural. Miss Bates really enjoys a romance writer who makes rich use of literary allusion and Lerner did so here most adroitly, she thought.

      She always appreciates reading about a response to a romance work that is different from her own. It helps her see the work in an alternate light, so thank you for your comment.

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  4. “Hmmm, Miss B. doesn’t recall thinking that there were many disasters heaped upon Nev and Penny: certainly, yes, their lives were not easy on the estate, thanks to Nev’s worthless father. And certainly, the villainous neighbour was an added burden that may have been de trop.”

    There was also Nev’s falling out with his friends, the crooked steward Nev and Penny fired for embezzlement, Nev’s former mistress who turned had an abortion and showed up on their estate to recover from it, the troubles with the new steward (Nev’s former friend) the land manager who exploited Nev’s tenants, Nev’s critical mother who even took away their furniture, Penny’s old suitor who showed up to try to break up the marriage, Nev’s sister who disliked Penny and then ran off with the ineligible ex-friend, and the surly and later rightfully angry tenants who almost broke out into violence after the poaching arrests.

    “However, for Miss B. the HEA depends on the characterization, that is, the “convinceability,” of the hero and heroine more than their external circumstances. ”

    That’s true for me as well, and every time I started thinking these two could have something good, another disaster befell them and they’d lose confidence in their marriage instead of believing that they could make it through whatever it was and come out of it with a stronger relationship.

    Instead of two steps forward, one step back, it was one step forward and two backs with this couple. I felt more optimistic about their chances early on, during the proposal scene, than I did at the end.

    “She doesn’t expect romance to be anything less than exaggerated, even fantastical … verisimilitude is not its forte. 😉 She doesn’t recall events to be out of the realm of possibility.”

    Most of the events were not out of the realm of possibility (except perhaps the villain going off the rails at the end and deciding to kill Penny so Nev would not have an heir), but the cumulative effect of so many disasters striking one after the other in the space of a few months did create a sense of unreality by the end.

    That wasn’t my biggest issue though; it was more that I didn’t gain much faith in Nev and Penny’s marriage (since they themselves had so little confidence in it), and all these depressing events had happened to two perfectly nice people. The book was something of a downer.

    “Miss Bates really enjoys a romance writer who makes rich use of literary allusion and Lerner did so here most adroitly, she thought.”

    As I said, I haven’t yet read A Lily Among Thorns and for all I know I might love it. I wasn’t commenting on how Lerner handled it. But I’ve seen the Song of Songs used in other romances and the Middle Eastern imagery it calls to mind never quite gels for me in that context. No doubt it’s a failure of my imagination. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is hard for me to read in translation too, but with the Song of Songs it’s especially hard since it’s so poetic.

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    • Definitely not a failure of the imagination, but a legitimate response to a text, or a text that is compelling in a particular way in its original language. Miss Bates has a similar response to any translation of modern Greek poetry; even the Greek-Egyptian poet Cavafy, who has had some very fine literary translators. Your response is understandable. Miss Bates hopes you do read A Lily Among Thorns; she’d loved to know that you think of it.

      Yes! Miss B. had forgotten Penny’s suitor: his wedding present to her was just so masterful and interesting and nasty. Miss B. just loved that part. She also thought that their reconciliation was really a lovely touch near the end.

      Thank you for your extensive and considered comment!

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  5. You’re welcome. I did really like the characters and Lerner’s writing; the book kept me up reading late, so it wasn’t all bad, by any means.

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