|Newcomer Cecilia Grant takes a big risk with A Lady Awakened, and she partly succeeds. On the one hand, it's refreshing to read about a Regency heroine who takes matters into her own hands and tries to turn the tables on the legalities of the day, which left widowed, childless women at the mercy of relatives. On the other hand, Martha Russell is a completely unlikable heroine for most of the story and readers may be hard-pressed to finish the book.
Martha is very recently widowed, and her small estate, Seton Park, will pass into the hands of her lecherous brother-in-law unless she can manage to produce an heir. Since Martha is not pregnant, the only way around this mess is to get pregnant - fast. As luck would have it, her nearest neighbor at the moment is handsome Theo Mirkwood, sent to the countryside by his baronet father to mend his profligate ways. Martha arranges a meeting and offers a proposition. She'll pay him handsomely if he'll be her lover for a month and get her pregnant. Then she'll have the all-important "heir" and be able to keep her home.
Theo is astonished, but enough of a rake to agree. Soon he and Martha are having sex every night. Boring, dull, passionless sex in which Theo tries to get Martha to loosen up and at least somewhat enjoy herself, and in which Martha lies rigid and tells him to just get it over with, because enjoying sex would mean she's a bad person. It would seem that Martha has already crossed the line into "bad" territory, since she's basically cuckolding a dead man and then lying and passing off the resulting child as a legitimate heir, but this doesn't register much.
Okay, I understand the title says it all, but this lady doesn't awaken for 2/3 of the book, and by the time their boring, passionless, etc. sexual encounters numbered in the double digits, I'd had enough. Martha isn't frigid; rather, she is determined not to enjoy herself, no matter how Theo tries. And here is where the book stumbled and didn't really recover: Theo falls in love with Martha. Readers will be forgiven for thinking "Oh, for heaven's sake, why?" Theo muses on her beauty, her intelligence, her bravery, etc. but let's face it, "ethics" isn't on the list, and it's nigh impossible to believe he'd be head over heels for Martha the Ice Queen.
Yet, the bones of the story are very intriguing. Martha certainly isn't the typical Regency heroine running off on madcap adventures with a notorious rake. She is backed into a corner, about to lose her home, and takes matters into her own hands in order to fight back against the system of entailment. I wouldn't even have minded Martha fighting her own passion, thinking she'd already been unethical enough in arranging the sex in the first place. But to have it go on for several hundred pages was just too much. The story got stuck in second gear; there's a subplot about Martha trying to keep a school open in the village while helping a local family, and a pig plays a minor but comic role, and these had to fill the gaps in between the cold sexual encounters. Not much fun, and not much growth on Martha's part until nearly the end of the story.
Theo is a serviceable hero, no pun intended, and his attempts to get Martha to loosen up and enjoy are admirable. I liked him, I just didn't believe in their romance.
A Lady Awakened shows a great deal of promise, especially in the unusual setup. Cecilia Grant has a clean, somewhat formal writing style that fits the era perfectly, and if she keeps structuring stories this inventively, we're going to hear a lot more about her. I know I'll pick up her next book without hesitation.