Oh, Cecilia Grant, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” With a nod to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it is what came to mind as Miss Bates closed Grant’s best novel yet, A Woman Entangled. She considers A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone two of the most original and interesting romance novels she’s read. A Woman Entangled is great, less alienating, gentler too. Grant has you reconsider figures such as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen especially, Mary Wollstonecraft, et. al.. She connects what she does in her novel squarely in the romance genre’s “founders” (and detractors?) and other literary influences. This does not make for a dry romance novel. It is great: memorable, witty, engaging, and heart-wrenching.
Grant’s novels are structured on the basis of one premise: putting her characters in a quandary. This allows her to focus on the most important literary element of the romance novel, characterization. Grant’s premise has been one where the heroine navigates the economic, legal, and social givens of her society. It relies on illuminating and critiquing questions of class and status. In A Lady Awakened, Martha contends with a woman’s inability to retain her deceased husband’s property. In A Gentleman Undone, Will and Lydia are both in straitened circumstances; however, Will is in this position because of honour and obligation. It is a free choice. Lydia’s dilemma, on the other hand, is darker, uglier, desperate. In A Woman Entangled, hero and heroine are caught in a similar dilemma: the desire to restore their families’ reputations. This binds them in friendship, but prevents them from acknowledging their love. Their marriage would result in thwarting their ambitions. Even when they’re willing to admit their feelings, they recognize the impossibility of their union in light of their aspirations.
Kate Westbrook hopes a society marriage will restore her family’s reputation, lost when her father married her actress-mother. Their family friend, Nick Blackshear, has the same mission, his family’s reputation shattered when his younger brother married a courtesan. To this end, Kate cultivates her father’s estranged sister-in-law, Lady Harringdon. When Lady Harringdon summons her, Kate is hopeful that her sponsorship will open society’s doors and lead to a respectable marriage, thus ensuring her siblings’ future. Kate’s father, suspicious of the ton’s Lotharios, asks Nick to watch over her. This proximity forces Nick to reconsider Kate’s rejection of his former suit (oh yes, there’s lovely history there!). It rekindles his love and desire for her, improbable as they are. Kate too harbours feelings she is unwilling to admit. Huis clos. Circumstance and obligation bring them close and the pull of attraction, friendship, desire, and love will leave no room for either to make a marriage of convenience.
We are introduced to Kate at a lending library. She holds a copy of Pride and Prejudice. She ruminates on the novel, dismissing Lizzy Bennett’s refusal of Darcy’s first proposal as impractical, even foolish. Kate is pragmatic. She self-identifies as an anti-Lizzy, content to settle for wealth, comfort, and status. In the end, however, it is a conversation with her blue-stocking sister, Viola, about Austen’s Emma, that helps Kate realize the importance of friendship and a love match, such as she would enjoy with Nick. It is Austen who helps her make up her mind about Nick, Austen who urges her to listen to her heart, not to compromise, to live honestly and openly with her deepest desires.
We meet Nick in court, an ambitious lawyer, pondering the likes of Blackstone, Goldsmith, Donne, Fielding, and a variety of law reformers. Nick yearns for a place in history as a barrister and parliamentarian. He yearns for the respect of his peers, a reward for his talent and work ethic. Kate, in turn, yearns for a place as a society wife. Marriage to each other would not alter their status, or serve their ambitions.
In the end, however, Nick and Kate are worthy of our love because they are essentially good people who love their families. They are worthy of our admiration because they have integrity. At the eleventh hour, they are honest about their feelings. They dismiss society’s hypocrisy and choose to live honestly, even though it means their life together will be spent on the fringe. But, maybe not … Grant describes a society in flux, the rigid hierarchies of early 19th century English society giving way to the stirrings of radical social change. This gives hope to Nick and Kate, but does not matter to them as much as it originally did. They’ve done some growing up since then.
The conclusion to this novel is one of sheer happiness, hope, contentment, friendship, acceptance, and forgiveness. How they reach it is all the pleasure of this novel. Read it. Grant’s novel posits the triumph of desire over intellect, heart over will, and love over pragmatism. It is a romantic, love- and life-affirming vision and a novel not to be missed. Grant takes her place in the romance novel canon alongside Heyer, Chase, and Balogh. Her novels are complex, beautifully written, conscious of their place in a tradition, original, moving, and a breath of fresh air in the miasma of derivative romance.
Miss Bates is so very pleased and says, “You have bewitched me.” Pride and Prejudice
A Woman Entangled is available June 25th.
This honest review was made possible thanks to a generous e-ARC from Random House/Bantam via Netgalley.