What happens when you aren’t built for the life you’re in? In The Heiress Effect Courtney Milan takes us along with her characters to find out.
I know that’s not the tagline that many would use to convey the point of this historical romance set in 1860s England. There is all the rich historic detail that infuses Milan’s other works in the Brothers Sinister series (and man do I love reading her Afterwords going over those details), we have Oliver Marshall’s quest for Parliament and voting reform and his eventual goal of being Prime Minister while overcoming that he is the bastard son of a duke but raised by Hugo and Serena Marshall (see The Governess Affair) and educated at Eton and Cambridge. We also have Miss Jane Fairfield, an heiress whose wealth makes her a target for the wrong kind of suitor, and suitors she must press off so she can protect her sister Emily, who suffers a mild form of epilepsy, from her guardian who is determined to find a treatment or cure for the malady, even if the treatment is worse than the condition itself. Emily also brings another complication when she begins a relationship with Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian attending Cambridge to become a barrister.
All of the conflicts which come from these various characters are endemic of the time period of the book – the problems of aristocracy, of suffrage, of coverture, of needing a guardian and being unable to escape them, of casual and overt racism, of Empire. Milan is not afraid to dig in to these topics and talk about the things that were really happening in her chosen time period.
For our two main protagonists, each is dealing with something that makes them other. For Oliver it’s his status as a commoner while being known as the brother of the Duke of Clermont (see The Duchess War), for Jane it’s the combination of her hundred thousand pounds (which was left to her by the man who was likely her biological father) and her complete unpreparedness for Society. Oliver was raised to be forthright, to know the difference between what is ethical and what isn’t. In an attempt to correct the ills of the world around him Oliver has decided in a career in politics so that he will be able to do something about the injustices he sees. But, to what cost of his own personality? For Jane she needs to remain unmarried for a year and a half (480 days when we first meet her) to protect the only family she has – her sister. In order to achieve that goal she has made herself a social pariah, but the cost to her emotional health is extreme and has left her friendless and without allies.
Oliver and Jane (and Emily and Anjan) are trying to be what they are not to please others who don’t have their best interests at heart. Each of them has dimmed a part of themselves – the part that in turns attracts the other to them – in an attempt to be who they think they need to be they have become something other than who they are at their cores. In discovering this (Jane first, and then much later Oliver) we get to a story of equals.
I really loved this story.
I love when couples are flawed together, which Jane and Oliver are. I also appreciate greatly when my romance novel reads don’t rely on one character to save another. Both Emily and Jane’s stories resolve in ways that give them full agency, and while Oliver and Anjan are helpful, they aren’t the linchpins. As a full-figured lady myself, I also enjoyed that Jane is not stereotypically skinny (seriously go check out these awesome images of fuller sized ladies from this era), with a 37-inch waistline (which is Oliver’s type!). She prefers disgustingly bright, garish clothing, because it pleases her, that it offends others is merely a benefit. And I love when previous works in the series are given shout-outs, such as when Oliver tells Jane about his sister-in-law’s friend who is married to a doctor (see A Kiss for Midwinter), and titles that actually get referenced in the work and mean something to the narrative.
If it wasn’t clear by now, read these books. They are delightful and I’m excited to read the next three.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read.