Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is permeated with its protagonists’ sadness and loneliness. Romance readers take it on faith that heroine and hero may be torn by angst and trauma; cataclysmic life-events may alter a person’s consciousness. Yet, we’re often told this about romance heroes and heroines while reading about two people who flail around with pseudo-pain, but seem to have a good time otherwise. Most telling are the love scenes, where angst is forgotten, where traumatic events stop at the bedroom door: all is redeemed in a flurry of physical ecstasy. But people bring their sadness and loneliness, their traumas if they’ve experienced any, into every aspect of their lives. It’s hard to write that into a romance novel: it takes psychological acumen and risk to emerge out of the genre’s conventions to write about two people who are unhappy, who aren’t sure even when they seem to have found someone they’re attracted to and like that they can recover from their sadness. Rose Lerner has done this very thing in True Pretenses, the saddest romance novel Miss Bates has ever read. It’s slow and meandering, and it near broke her heart. As Lerner reached the climax of her story, it intensified; it brought all that disparate uncertainty, ennui, and melancholy into focus: pointed to all the ways we lie and make ourselves unhappy, all the rigid rules and self-regulations that lead to stultified lives.
Lerner has done something very interesting in True Pretenses, she’s situated conflict in two sibling relationships: the hero, Asher Cohen, and his brother, Rafe; and, the heroine, Lydia Reeve, and her brother, Jamie, now Lord Wheatcroft after their father’s recent death. The conflict and the hero and heroine’s conflicted feelings involve their relationship with their siblings. The romance, a marriage-of-convenience (which Lerner cleverly exposes as the swindling trope it has to be) and her hero, a self-avowed Jewish swindler, occurs with ease. It may be convenient; Lydia and Ash’s reasons for it may be expedient. But, from their first meeting, it’s established that: they like each other; are attracted to each other; and, most importantly, understand each other.
Ash and Rafe Cohen arrive in Lively St. Lemeston as the “Cahill” brothers to enact their greatest swindle yet. The heiress, Lydia Reeve, is an opportunity to give Ash everything he wants: Ash is going to match-make a a good and wealthy life for his younger brother, Rafe, especially now that Rafe is fed up with their peripatetic, bamboozling life-style and threatening to join the army. Lydia’s plans are as expedient as Ash’s, however: she wants to get a hold of inheritance money to pursue her charitable endeavours and maintain the lady-bountiful status she made her life’s work as her father’s hostess; marrying “for convenience” will do that for her. She hopes, as well, to further her baby brother’s, Jamie’s, political career, as her father would have wished … except, like Rafe, Jamie wants nothing of the life his sibling envisions for him. Ash machinates his way into Lydia’s drawing-room to play swindling “matchmaker,” to gull Lydia into marrying his brother, unaware of Lydia’s eager reasons to go along with Ash’s plan. Ash and Lydia’s mercenary ways are half-hearted from the moment they lay eyes on each other and quietly, ruefully converse; a connection is made. It’s not fireworks passion and heated looks, but it’s deep with knowledge and connection. It’s honest: they divulge what they want from each other and move on from there. When Rafe disappears, and Jamie sullenly refuses to co-operate with Lydia’s political aspirations for him, Lydia decides to go through with her plan with Ash “Cahill.”
While the plot sounds convoluted, it really isn’t. Once Rafe disappears and Jamie sulks away from Lydia’s plans, Lydia and Ash are left to work through their newly established lives. So much of the novel, and Miss Bates’ pleasure in it, lies in Lerner’s treatment of identity. Ash and Lydia are connected in having lived for others: Ash for Rafe and Lydia for Jamie and the family’s political duties to the poor. When these core identities are threatened, questioned, ultimately erased by change in their siblings and circumstances, what do Ash and Lydia have left? Lerner is not one for pat answers: it’s not as easy as saying “each other,” not when one has lost the very thing that has served as a core identity. For Ash, what he is is hidden:
When Rafe had been hungry, Ash had found him food. When Rafe had been cold, Ash had got him clothes. When Rafe had been sick, Ash had brought him a doctor. He’d begged, borrowed, bargained, whored and stolen to do it – stolen every way he knew, and then made up a few new ones. He’d made it look easy, so Rafe would never feel how close they were to starving, freezing, dying of fever in a gutter somewhere and being dumped in pauper’s graves. Who would he even be, without Rafe?
It was a reminder that he was probably the only person in this town who wasn’t a Christian, but he was used to that now. Riots, cries of Christ-killer, his little brother coming home covered in bruises and pork fat – those fears were a minor itch when the shadow of the iron-and-gilt cross fell across his face. The fine thing about the country, unlike London, was that no one knew enough about Jews to know when they were looking at one. Give a false Christian name, and he was safe.
“I’m a stranger.”
Ash was Rafe’s brother, his protector, the only father he’d ever known. Ash was a Jew who swindled to survive and made his Jewishness a thing to be hidden, to be kept as a close secret: one more thing that required cozzening. Lerner plays on Jewish stereotypes beautifully and slyly: the wanderer, the swindler, the “stranger”: the man of many identities needed to survive, thrive, win over others, and gain a living and place. But one whose very identity, once determined, targets him for scorn, condemnation, and violence. Ash has juggled and played with his identity like a game that he’s fixed, so that he cannot lose himself. He only loses himself when he loses Rafe, “Rafe would be gone soon enough, gone forever. Ash wondered how long he himself would last after that, and what purpose he’d find to drag him through his days.” Angst comes easy; writing despair into a romance? Much, much harder.
Lerner’s Asher Cohen/Ashford Cahill is the most vibrant character in True Pretenses: his impoverished childhood, dead whore-mother, under-wraps Jewishness, his misery and kindness, and gentle smarts dominate the narrative. The only thing Lerner could do for him is offer him, at least, a heroine worthy of his contradictions. Lydia Reeve is wonderful herself, a woman whose grief, when the novel opens, is palpable, the kind of grief that refuses to pretend for others, a wallowing, weepy kind of grief. And yet, she’s trying, because she’s always, like Ash, lived more for others than herself, ” … one’s duty to one’s family outweighed all else. Lydia herself had always acted on that principle.” Her desire to claim her inheritance to continue her community work hides doubts about her motivation, “a pathetic old maid desperate to feel important”. Lydia is alone and lonely, but marriage doesn’t appeal, “To submit to another, one had to esteem his judgment higher than one’s own.” Like Ash, Lydia, with, as Ash says, “her Tudor-portrait face,” has settled for a life that consists of her public face: her father’s hostess, brother’s mother-figure, and community patroness. Ash and Lydia only let others see what they choose, keeping secret their sadness and loneliness. What appeals most about their relationship is how honest they are with each other: physical attraction, fraught relationships with their siblings, loss and grief. They’re never afraid to reveal themselves, maybe because, unlike many a romance hero and heroine, they like each other, recognize a kindred spirit, and are a helpmeet to each other.
Ash has something to teach Lydia about a fluid identity, such as he’s manipulated his entire life, donning masks, names, and professions, always chasing a swindle. He teaches her about “pulling the wool” over others’ eyes, such as her brother and Lively St. Lemeston’s citizenry:
“Hiding things is just one part to acting, though. The other is showing things. You’ve mastered looking cheerful, concerned, that sort of thing. Mild friendly emotions. but if this is going to work, you’re going to have to pretend a lot more than that. You’re going to have to make everyone in this town, including your brother, believe that you love me … The easiest way to do it is to imagine you do love me,” he said. “At least, that’s what I’ve always done. I find a little part of myself that feels the things I want, and bring it out and feed it … The biggest obstacle to a good lie is your own hesitation,” he said. “There’s a part of us that wants people to know the truth, to see us for who we are. But if you can stop wanting to get caught … you’re the sole witness to your own thoughts, and so you can perjure yourself without fear of contradiction.”
In Ash’s advice to Lydia, how to go about convincing everyone their marriage is real, lies the gist to the novel’s title, “true pretenses.” Play at something long enough, love it, want it, nurture it, and a person is transformed into the very identity one created. Ash is too sad over Rafe, too removed from Lydia socially to harbor any hope of love or family from her. Lydia is too grief-stricken, too concerned over her brother, to consider how she might feel if she pretends long enough. Sympathy, liking, and a desperate need for touch, so much that Ash and Lydia’s initial sexual encounters end with “thank you,” and “I needed that,” which Miss Bates found deeply poignant, exposing two people so lonely and having been alone for so long, that touch is relief and release before it can be pleasure. Ash and Lydia’s public personas, determined privately as the means by which they’ll both get what they want, become real to them, creep up on them. They already like and respect each other, physical attraction brings them intimacy, and time in sharing these things brings them love.
Miss Bates’ favourite exchange is between Ash and Lydia’s brother, Jamie. Jamie, who accuses Ash of fortune-hunting, challenges Ash with his peripatetic life, confronts him with the truth of Ash:
“You’ve never stayed anywhere more than a few weeks, and now you want to spend the rest of your life in one place and I’m not supposed to find anything about that peculiar?”
… “Home has never been a place to me. When I was young it was my mother, and later it was my brother. The places I’ve gone, they’ve all been home because he was there. Miss Reeve is my home now. Whither she goes, I’ll go, and her people will be my people.”
While Ash believes that he’s play-acting for Jamie, the incipient truth of what Lydia has come to mean to him and what he’s found in her, is right there, a seed of truth in their elaborate lie. Who can deny the power of Lerner’s ironic use of lines from the Biblical Ruth, the stranger who adopts the ways of her mother-in-law’s people, vowing steadfast love and loyalty? The Jewish Asher Cohen, a stranger and sojourner, finds his home in Lydia. It may be pretense for Jamie, but it’s true to Lydia and true for Asher. In the end, Ash’s chameleon ability serves him well, leads him to love.
The final quarter of the novel is the most powerful because everything hidden is revealed. Characters are tested, and their lives are laid open. Siblings expose what they’ve hidden from each other in trying to protect each other. Lydia must rescue Ash from despair and Ash must accept love as his due. In some ways, the public pretenses of their marriage must be upheld: how else can a Jewish swindler married to an English heiress survive? In other ways, by honest conversation with their siblings, and Lydia’s decision to try to work with Jewish charities, and the risk they take at being discovered, there is also authenticity.
Miss Bates, though True Pretenses meandered and read slow, really loved it in the end and found in it, “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is published by Samhain and has been available since January 13. Miss Bates received an e-ARC, courtesy of the author.