A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

True Pretenses by Rose Lerner

on April 27, 2020

(reprinted from Heroes and Heartbreakers. This is currently on sale, so a good time to snatch it up. Also, the author could really use the support right now.)

There are many fascinating themes in True Pretenses, around family bonds, and religion, and the meaning of public service, but the major theme is found right there in the title. As you might expect from a romance in which one character is a con man, the characters struggle with knowing what is real between them. Yet paradoxically, they find truth within their masquerade.

On the surface, Asher Cohen and Lydia Reeve could not be more different. She’s the highly respectable daughter of a wealthy English peer; he’s the son of a Jewish prostitute from the London slums. But both come from lives requiring masks. Maintaining propriety requires constant vigilance for Lydia, as does her work in local politics. Asher’s mask as trustworthy Christian gentleman Ash Cahill might seem harder to live with, yet he’s learned to embrace his lies. When his younger brother Rafe asks him, “Aren’t you tired of celebrating other people’s holidays?,” Ash honestly answers, no.

He loved celebrating other people’s holidays. Moments were as satisfying to steal as money, and besides, sharing things with strangers made him feel as if the whole world was really one family.

What’s most striking about Ash and Lydia’s relationship, especially in the romance genre, is how honest it is almost from the start. The lies between them end very quickly, and Lydia discovers that she can be herself with Ash: she can express her lustiness, and admit that she doesn’t want to have children. It’s a constant pleasure for her to realize that Ash appreciates her just as she is.

It was a calculating thought, the kind she’d always pretended she didn’t have. But Mr. Cahill liked that she was calculating.

Living in a time when in which “gentlemen liked ladies to be the repository of their daydreams of innocence and virtue,” Ash’s unshockability is as attractive to her as his warm brown eyes and sweetly rumpled look.

Honesty comes harder to Ash; a lifetime of secrets has made him a compulsive liar, sometimes over the silliest things. (He gets a queasy comeuppance after giving Lydia a list of his favorite foods, which were actually Rafe’s.) Perhaps his biggest problem is that he no longer believes in the validity of his own feelings. He’s so used to an invisible wall of lies between him and the people he cares about, and to giving things up, and persuading himself that he didn’t need them, that it’s difficult for him to accept his true desires.

They’re both repressed in completely different ways, and Lydia’s delight at being allowed to pull Ash’s clothes off (the cover illustration is very apt!) combines with his wistful tenderness towards her to create a moving, memorable romance.

This is a sequel to the wonderful Sweet Disorder, but it’s fine to start here, although there are some glimpses of its characters and their happy ever afters — amusingly, from Lydia’s perspective as a disdainful political rival.

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