This is Alison Atlee’s first novel, a historical. And a romance. It came out in 2013 but just recently worked its way to the top of my tbr pile. The cover description:
ALL BETSEY DOBSON HAS EVER ASKED IS THE CHANCE TO BE VIEWED ON HER OWN MERITS, BUT IN A MAN’S WORLD, THAT IS THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN
When Betsey disembarks from the London train in the seaside resort of Idensea, all she owns is a small valise and a canary in a cage. After attempting to forge a letter of reference she knew would be denied her, Betsey has been fired from the typing pool of her previous employer. Her vigorous protest left one man wounded, another jilted, and her character permanently besmirched. Now, without money or a reference for her promised job, the future looks even bleaker than the debacle behind her. But her life is about to change . . . because a young Welshman on the railroad quay, waiting for another woman, is the one man willing to believe in her.
On the surface this looks like a fairly typical historical romance. Young woman at the end of her rope, handsome man gives her what she needs to get back on her feet, conflict, conflict, conflict, happy ending.
It always irritates me when a review starts with “predictable” because hey, if you pick up an espionage novel, you can predict who the main players and what the stakes will be; if you pick up a novel with a vampire on the cover, you can predict the nature of the beast within. If you’ve never read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, let me give you a hint: people fall in love in Austen’s novels; social injustice is revealed and dealt with in novels written by Dickens. If you decide to read Romeo & Juliet and you don’t bother to read any blurbs or see any movies before hand, you might be surprised to find out that it’s a tragedy, which means (predictably) that all the main characters die.
So if you read the blurb on this book, you know it’s a romance. Two people will fall in love, that’s a given. But you don’t know the characters, how they’ll interact, what kind of conflicts will come their way. You know the destination, but the journey will be new to you.
I would like to see the word predictable used a lot less in reviews of novels. It’s a lazy way to say the novel didn’t work for you, or you didn’t want to put work into the novel. If you’re going to review a novel, review it, gotdammit.
Now that’s out of my system.
This is a great novel. The characters are complex (very complex), nothing like the run-of-the-mill historical romance characters (and such characters and novels do exist, hundreds of them – which is why a novel like this stands out). Betsey is all too aware of the way men think about sex and she’s not above using it to her advantage because, to be fair, she’s got so few tools and next to no advantages in the time and place where she finds herself. She’s a realist. She’s pragmatic. She’d like to eat, and have a safe place to live, but she would also like to make something of herself, and that is the challenge.
She takes steps to find a way out of the life she’s destined for. Things conspire against her. She doesn’t give up. No fairy godmother comes to bail her out. She could end up a street walker, she knows this, but she’s not willing to sit back and let life happen to her. So she takes chances. Big ones.
I really like this Betsey. Quite a few Amazon reviewers don’t like her because (shock) she thinks of sex as fucking. That’s the word that comes to her mind. In her time and place, what else would you expect? This is not a sheltered earl’s daughter. But some readers won’t credit historical fiction that falls outside very narrow boundaries. They want a historical fiction universe in which the verb to fuck does not exist. How boring, say I.
Because let me tell you: Alison Atlee has done her research, and she’s not going to pull punches. If you want a fairy tale, this is not the story for you. Here’s another thing Atlee knows how to do that many cannot pull off, even after many years of writing: she can write a sex scene that goes wrong. It’s not all orgasms and sweet talk. Sometimes it’s hey you’re kneeling on my hair. That’s hard to write, and more than that: it’s hard for characters to recover from. But Atlee handles all that with aplomb.
So we have here a couple fantastic characters who are not (cough) predictable, who will (predictably) fall in love, but who find interesting ways to get to that conclusion. There’s wonderful scene setting in awful London and a quirky seaside resort. There are moments of panic where you might think, oh no, this is never going to work out.
So go read this novel. I highly recommend it. I hope Atlee is writing another one, because I anticipate great things from her. And I wish her millions of thoughtful, open minded, willing-to-be-surprised readers.
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