I enjoyed the hell out of The Heiress Effect, the second book in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. I liked the first book in the series well enough and am always up for a good historical romance, but this book was an unexpected delight.
Jane Fairfield is too much… too loud, too opinionated, too garish, too bright, too big, too everything. And she likes it that way. Jane is out to not win a husband, and she’ll do whatever it takes to deter the suitors flocking to her 100,000 fortune, even if it makes her an object of ridicule to all of society.
Oliver Marshall is made of ambition. The bastard son of a duke, Oliver had a modest but happy childhood until he went to Eton where bullies taught him the lesson that in order to get ahead, he has to fit in, keep quiet, not make waves. He’s got his eyes set on Parliament, and his first step is winning the franchise for the “common man.” Oliver needs a quiet, modest, proper wife to help smoothe the way for him. Jane, bright, loud, and incapable of fitting in, is the last woman in the world he could marry.
This set-up certainly isn’t revolutionary. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Obstacles arise. Happy endings for all. This is a romance novel – half the point is that it follows a formula. But Milan plays around with that formula in some really interesting ways. Let’s explore…
Feminism! Not just the smart, feisty, independent heroine we’ve come to know so well from romance. No, we’re talking the real thing here. There’s a plot line centering around a well-meaning man (who happens to be the book’s biggest villain) taking away a woman’s autonomy over her own body. There’s a concern-troll hero running around telling women how to behave in order to keep them safe, and the women responding with a eye roll and a “Thanks pal, I got this. Maybe deal with your own shit instead?” Also, there’s badass suffragettes refusing to let men silence them or make them invisible.
Diversity! Ok, so as far as ethnic diversity, it’s only a single character, Anjan Bhattacharya, an Indian student at Cambridge, but this is a romance set in 1860s England, so that’s huge. A few more things about Anjan: a) he’s romantically involved with the heroine’s sister, Emily, in a very sweet secondary romance; b) his plot line explores issues of racism, as you would probably expect, but also touches on themes of identity and assimilation in surprisingly nuanced ways for a romance novel; c) he’s pretty much the only male character in the book who isn’t at least a little bit sexist; and d) his mother is basically the best and wins at life.
More Diversity! We also have two characters one could categorize as disabled (severe anxiety in one case, some sort of epilepsy-type/seizure/something disorder in the other). Both are portrayed with compassion and sensitivity, but more importantly, each is allowed to be more than her disease, allowed to be a multi-faceted character with all sorts of other traits and desires and qualities than “disabled.” Emily, Jane’s sister with the epilepsy-type/seizure/something disorder, is treated by her uncle as an invalid, a broken creature who needs to be either fixed or confined and hidden for her own protection. After he once again points out that Emily is “broken”, Jane responds: “Emily…is whole. She has fits, that’s all. Joan of Arc had fits, and look what she managed to accomplish. The only person who is broken here is you, for being unable to see it.”
On top of all this good for you stuff, we also get a really good romance with a bunch of likable, well-developed characters! We get flirting in book shops! We get a subplot about science! Perhaps the single best thing we get is this:
Her heart stopped and then started once more, beating with a ponderous weight that seemed to tear her equanimity to pieces. Jane stood, clutching her hands together, as Oliver came out of the shadowed hall. His spectacles gleamed in the late afternoon sun. [emphasis added]
That’s right. This is a huge romantic reunion moment, and the first observation we get as the heroine watches the hero approach? Waxing poetic about his goddamned glasses. I’m in.