Listen to the Moon is the third in Rose Lerner’s Lively St. Lemeston series. As in many historical romance series, it features a number of cameos from the protagonists of the other books, which is always a fun thing to spot! In this case, Lerner does something slightly unusual and features as her main characters two servants.
I’ve definitely read other historical romances with servants as main characters before. But they often tend to fall into a couple of patterns: distressed gentlewomen down on their luck, or illegitimate children of nobility, or people in disguise. In this instance, Lerner resists all of these patterns: John and Sukey are genuinely part of the servant class. They expect to be part of this class for the rest of their lives.
I very much appreciated the way the complexities of being a servant are shown, both within the characters and in the different experiences depicted. John, for instance, is well paid and highly trained, someone for whom work is a source of pride. Sukey works because she must in order to live, and she doesn’t have the same pride in the job nor the same prospects (which is a source of conflict in the story). But at the same time, there’s an inherent tension between the reality of being perpetually lower class and at the mercy of your employer’s circumstances, and having a sense of fulfillment from doing the job well. It’s not resolved, because it can’t be resolved; there are no simple answers here, and Lerner doesn’t attempt to pass off platitudes as wisdom. Instead, she shows us John, and Sukey, and Thea and Molly, and Mrs. Khaleel. We’re given a sense of some of the very small range of experiences, not a single story. We’re also shown that even a well meaning or kind employer doesn’t erase the structural inequalities.
In terms of the relationship at the heart of the book, I really liked the contrast between Sukey’s impetuousness and John’s exactness. It gives food for realistic and believable tension between them, though I occasionally did want them to just talk. I also liked the way John’s concern about his age and suitableness for Sukey relieved some of the worry about that inequality of age and power that might otherwise be there for me.
I also really appreciated the way Sukey was shown as a young woman who knows her own mind, who wants to be valued for who she is. Her anxieties and strengths both worked well for me, and I liked that she’s someone who doesn’t leap into romance and who’s aware of the potential costs to both love and marriage.
Perhaps the most resonant thread of the story for me was actually John’s struggle to come to terms with his family and how much of him comes from his father. This fear that he’ll be as tyrannical and feared combined with his desire for things to be done right was nicely balanced. Especially, I think, when we begin to see his genuine pride in doing things well at the same time as he wants to find his own way.
Having read this book twice, I do feel that there’s something a little awkward about the ending. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is–pacing? a shift in tone?–but I noticed it both times. However, as an overall story, I loved this one, and I found the emotional payoff of the ending to still be very rewarding. As usual, Lerner writes engaging and complex characters, and I really appreciated John and Sukey’s story.
Book source: review copy from author
Book information 2016, Samhain; adult historical romance
My review of Lerner’s True Pretenses