Samhain Publishing, $5.50, ISBN 978-1-61922-897-9
Historical Romance, 2016
Listen to the Moon is a refreshing kind of historical romance, because it features characters who work in the big house, rather than lords and ladies, and none of them get elevated to dukedom or anything like that during the story. Sure, that means this story lacks the upper class glitz typical of historical romances set the 19th century England, like bluestockings throwing themselves at rakish pee-pees to save the unicorns or having vigorous sex with rakish spies as part of English’s secret war with the French vermin. Yet, the author manages to create a very emotional read that can leave one feeling a little wrung out at the end of the day.
I have to warn you guys, though. I haven’t read any of the author’s previous books before, the characters in this one have their lives linked to their employers – understandably so, as they are, after all, servants of the big house. Because of this, I still feel that I am missing some pieces of the puzzle even by the last page, and I wonder whether other readers unfamiliar with the Lively St. Lemeston series would feel the same way.
John and Sukey Toogood are husband and wife, but while they do feel a degree of lust and affection for one another, the wedding happens out of necessity. John has lost his job as a valet when his now former employer married an unsuitable woman, got cut off by the family, and could no longer afford to pay John as a result. He eventually discovers that there is vacancy in the local vicarage, but the vicar wants a married man to fill in the butler spot. Sukey is a maid who often talks too much and doesn’t treat her job with the kind of professionalism that John would have preferred, but he knows that she wants a change, so he suggests that they get married and work at the vicarage together.
The drama here is mostly of the mundane kind. John finds himself being charge of a number of people, with the usual rebellious or troublesome lot among the numbers, and trying to be in charge causes some friction both with the wife and the rest of the staff. He is also haunted by his worries that he is turning into his father – a tyrannical perfectionist who terrorizes the people around him because they can never meet his exacting standards. Every time he says something critical and harsh to the wife or another person, he feels that he is becoming that man, and yet, it seems like those words just come out of his mouth so easily. Sukey has abandonment issues, and she has a hard time opening up to or trusting John even as she often feels angry at him for what she perceives as acting cold and withdrawn. Oh, and she’s 22 to his 40 – her more impulsive and reckless ways often embarrass and annoy him, and he ends up saying or doing things that make the two of them feel horrible as a result.
And because they are both members of the staff, they have to wake up early and work all those hours, so they don’t have the luxury to grope in shadowy corners of a garden or do other leisurely things other more privileged characters in romance novels do to hash out their issues. Are these two doomed to become permanently sullen and resentful in one another’s company?
I give the author one thing: she doesn’t make life any easier for herself by making sure that her characters really have to work through their issues, without resorting to cop-out plot devices like John discovering that he’s the long-lost son of a duke or Sukey winning the lottery. Both characters have distinct, whole personalities here, and their feelings are raw and real to the point that their vulnerable moments can be tough to read. I find myself thinking several times, in fact, that I can relate to what these characters are feeling and doing. Their actions may sometimes feel like acts of futility, sometimes they seem stubborn or just not sensible, but that, I feel, is because they are only human. That’s the author’s biggest triumph here: she makes me feel for these characters.
However, later in the story, I can’t help feeling that the characters are rehashing their issues several times. Because each time such a scene can be a tough and bitter pill to swallow, when I think of something such as “Wait, haven’t these people gone through that issue a few pages back?” it is with frustration rather than curiosity.
Still, while I do feel that the momentum of the story peters out slightly towards the later ends of the story, Listen to the Moon is easily a memorable and even cathartic read. I’m already sort of regretting that I’ve not read the author’s previous books.