Dear Godtopus, I have got to start reading different things. Even I am thinking I can’t possibly review another romance novel. I am working my way through a Victorian fashion picture book, but I’m not done yet, so here we go again:
I’ve written about the two men and six plots that occupy all romance novels, but I’ve given short shrift to the women, so this is what I’ve learned since my first romance novel review 136 books ago on CBR IV: She’s still either a Wallflower or a Victim of Circumstance. The Wallflower is a lovely, pert, overlooked woman who needs to get her light out from under that bushel. The Victim of Circumstance is someone who, usually due to exigencies beyond her control, has dim prospects and has to make her own luck. Both women are bright and self-sufficient, and, contrary to what I suspect many people think about romance novels (when they think about them at all), they are not being “rescued” by the hero. They either rescue him, or they find their way together.
When people are kind enough to ask me to recommend a romance writer to them, I always suggest Courtney Milan unreservedly (Correction: One reservedly, Trial by Desire, her second book). With the novella This Wicked Gift, I have read her entire output and thus have to writhe in anticipation of her next publication; fortunately, this one did not disappoint. It broke my heart and then put a smiley-face band aid around it.
A Christmas story, This Wicked Gift, is part Milan’s first trio of published works, including Proof by Seduction and Trial by Desire. William Q. White, a clerk scraping by after being perfunctorily disinherited, is in love with Lavinia Spencer. Astute, determined, and vivacious, she runs the local lending library to which he has a subscription, and she thrills to his presence as well. William takes advantage of an opportunity to be of service to Lavinia, and then takes advantage of her indebtedness to him, or so he thinks.
Milan never shies away from the grinding poverty of 19th century England and this book dwells not with the lords and ladies of so many romance novels, but with honest people trying to eke out a living in an often harsh and loveless world. To weave the fight against one’s own penury, place in the world, and the striving for some semblance of a comfortable life into a genre story based around romantic love is quite an accomplishment. It is indeed romantic and it feels realistic.
The last Milan novella I read, A Kiss for Midwinter, contained a heart-stoppingly romantic moment. This book contained a sentence that broke my heart into a thousand pieces,”You would need never feel cold again.” It wasn’t a romantic line, it was meant literally: You will have the financial wherewithal to purchase warm clothing and fuel to heat your home. Imagine a life where being warm seems like an unattainable luxury. Being cold is something I despise and resent. Whenever I read a book with characters living in poverty, being cold always occurs to me. I won’t even read the Highland romance genre because I am always thinking, “God, it must be so damp. It would just crawl through your clothing and envelop you for nine months of the year. I don’t care how good a kisser he is, he’s not worth it.”