Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love and Grief

The Octagon Room, where Augusta and
Joss first have a private conversation.
Last week, I read Theresa Romain's Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress. The author has become an auto-buy for me. She has a very clever way of inverting the usual gender roles in historical romance. This was most obvious in To Charm a Naughty Countess, which featured a rakish heroine and a virgin hero. To a lesser extent, she did something similar in her latest book. I am accustomed to reading about a heroine who lacks confidence in herself and a hero who is emotionally unavailable and hostile to the idea of falling in love. In this book, it is Joss Everett who lacks confidence in both his personal appeal and his career prospects, and Augusta Meredith who wants a temporary, no-strings-attached affair.

I was attracted to the book largely for its Bath location. I am a Jane Austen fan, so I have long been fascinated by the city that she enjoyed as a visitor but came to dislike as a resident. I was lucky enough to visit a couple years ago, so I loved reading scenes that were set in locations that I knew personally.

The canal as seen from Sydney Gardens, where Joss and
Augusta watched a punt passing beneath a footbridge.
What really grabbed me on a visceral level, however, was Augusta's state of mind when she came to Bath. In the recent past, she lost both of her parents. With her inheritance strictly controlled by trustees, the man who had been courting her in secret (who had already seduced her) abandoned her for an heiress with a more accessible fortune. She was struggling to regain the person she used to be while trying to protect her heart from new pain. She decided to find a temporary lover in a city full of transients, hoping that by dictating the terms of the affair, she could regain her sense of control and self-worth while exorcising the memory of her faithless suitor. What she really craves, of course, is human connection and true love, but she is afraid to admit her need, even to herself.

This strongly resonated with me, because I experienced a similar emotional state some decades ago, during my first year after college. I was struggling to find a job so I could afford to move out of my parents' house. The grandmother who helped raise me succumbed to cancer, and a younger cousin who was also a close friend committed suicide. I was rather numb with grief, and I worried that leaning on my parents for emotional support would undermine my quest for independence.

My craving for human contact and distraction led me to a casual association that I would not have accepted otherwise. We didn't use the term friends-with-benefits in those days, but that is essentially how it began. Like Augusta, I fooled myself into believing that was all I needed, and I resisted admitting, even to myself, that I had become emotionally attached.

Although my story arc diverged quite a bit from Augusta's, and I rode an emotional roller coaster for about a year and a half, the ending was not dissimilar. I am still married to my former friend-with-benefits (and he is still my best friend).

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