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Unlocked by Courtney Milan
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10 years: that number really hit me in the face. Evan and Elaine met in 1830. That same year, Evan left England. He returned in 1838. When he meets Elaine again, at a ball in 1840, it’s been a decade since they’ve seen each other. Long separation … not a trope I love.

Great opening: why is an earl who once “dominated society” feeling uneasy as he enters the ballroom with his cousin Diana? What had he done that made him hate himself? He spots Lady Equine (Lady Elaine Warren) even though she’s easy to overlook because of her colorless, anemic dress. Her hair is tightly pulled back and she’s not married. He met her at 17, she’s now 27. What he remembers from their first encounter -- her mature body, unlike other debutantes and her “long, loud, vital laugh”. He thought she held nothing back – that she planned to enjoy life.

What happened: Evan gave her a damning, soul-destroying nickname (Lady Equine) and continued to tease her. She began “to slide her eyes over him”. “He had watched her draw in on herself until the vital stuff he’d lusted after had simply faded away.” So he ran away, ashamed. Found maturity in travels and becoming an accomplished mountaineer. Makes a different choice when he returns: he asks her to dance. His cousin assumes he’s going to bait her.

What has Elaine done in 10 years? a) made a few good friends b) waited for society to find new targets of scorn c) finds places to hide in social situations she can’t avoid “This house party was mostly safe—she’d interrogated her mother closely as to the guest list. None of her closest friends had come, but her remaining tormenters were absent. Her mother had wanted to attend to pass the time while her father was off overseeing his estates.” Didn’t care for the mother/daughter relationship, as it was described, because wouldn’t a mother who was also a scientist be a tad more observant? Unless it’s the unobservant scientist trope and how accurate is that? Elaine’s closest friends: why wouldn’t they, during a 10 year time frame, persuade her to dress more attractively? I wondered why she was seemingly so passive about her future. “Unlike Elaine, her mother somehow failed to notice how little she was liked.” OK, get that, but why does she not realize her daughter isn’t liked? Why doesn’t Elaine talk to her mother? Bullying is serious stuff but perhaps it was the amount of time elapsing since the incident?

Evan asks Elaine to dance: she doesn’t run: “realized long ago that running was the worst thing she could do”. Was it? Wasn’t continuing to show up the worst thing? Wondering. Is all her self-esteem bound up in the validation of one cruel man? “She hated that he made her think that the impossible might be attainable.” She feels exposed, humiliated. They trade insults. He’s happy she’s showing some gumption. She shows admirable poise when he tries to apologize. Liked that sense of spine.

Dangerous shoals – Elaine’s mother is being set up for embarrassment. She admits her mother not attentive but my goodness, 11 seasons and no husband? Is that realistic for the time? Moving along, Evan is making amends and warning off his cousin. The explanation for past cruelty by the cousins: their mutual teasing was for mutual protection. Diana realizes her cousin is being chivalric. After dinner Evan talks about climbing, Diana defends the numbers of years he’s been away preparing to climb Mont Blanc. Play on words dragged me out of story … Diana says “…not only rope to consider, but the boots, and the, uh, the special packs, and also the tampons.” “Crampons,” Evan supplied. Were tampons a word in 1840? Was this intended as a wink for the reader? It took me into mistorical* territory: the word tampon was first used in 1848. N.B. The author explained to me offline that the word tampon was used correctly. I've changed my grade because I, the reader, made a mistake about a word (and it threw me off). There are lots of words like that, I suspect, like "shag". In any case, my mistake: my research was too superficial.

Diana deliberately spills wine on Elaine and Evan privately, but not publicly, calls her on her action. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of amends and thoughtfulness and anger and change. Interesting. Elaine explodes at him, she cries, she confronts, she’s honest with Evan. She enters his room, she ties him up (at his invitation) – really? How does she know how to do such a good knot, with a name even? But what I liked, that she left him tied up. She’s done with being the butt of his jokes and she acknowledges he always watched her bosom and at last, asks herself, why did she worry? FEAR – False Evidence Appearing Real. She’s busting through her myths.

I like, “… she’d felt full-blown want”. The danger, that he would make her feel safe, make her believe. Finally, her mother offers to leave and self-sacrificial Elaine refuses the offer. Mother speaks, Evan polite, Diana rude, Evan abases himself in front of everyone and tells the story of how, as a 19 year-old, he was cruel to a young girl. One of the parts of the book I liked, his honesty, that he didn’t make excuses: he owns his behaviour. That’s why he started mountaineering, “because I was too cowardly to come home, apologize, and try to make things right.”

He learns the truth – how she inhaled water into her lungs trying to stop the way she laughed. The torment she endured. She didn’t want to be herself. She offers him friendship. Lovely to read, that she extends hand of friendship. After a wonderful kiss (and Milan, such a good writer, makes you feel all the different elements of it), it's all friendship, all the time.

Nine months later. He rehabilitates her (that annoys me, somewhat). Her success in society "happens" to her. Was no one else in society able to help? What I like: that love takes time; trust takes time; that she needs to stand on her own, to regain her power. But how, by walking into a room wearing dark blue or vibrant red? Is this a cliché or a powerful metaphor?

Liked again how a bad situation, her mother and Elaine’s “vulnerable heart” is reframed. I am unfortunately not surprised though, that it’s a man behind the scenes, pulling levers, calling in favours. A man does that for the woman he loves. Now the woman astronomer from Hanover connection … laying it on a bit but lovely to see mother appreciated. Niggling question: why was Elaine so ignorant of her mother’s scientific worth? But heroes need quests and Evan’s was to have the truth dawn on Elaine … that he is in love with her.

Another evening. We’re on solid ground: she knows she’s loved, she’s not sure how exactly she feels but she cares, deeply. Love blooms. It’s interesting that he can see beyond them to the idea that he could love someone else, although he of course wants her. Very mature sentiment. With the passage of time he’s savagely unhappy: he doesn’t believe she’ll ever love him. But once she admits to herself she loves him, she acknowledges that she has the power to make him happy and she goes to him. My thoughts? Love will have a way – she’s been waiting long enough. Lovely dialogue – Milan does that so well. And how much satisfaction do we get when we read, “Confident. She was so confident. It was what he’d always hoped for from her—her trust, finally given over to him.” But wait, cousin Diana shows up: can this newly made proposal be saved? *Of course!* I like that Elaine now has responsibility for Evan’s happiness: she has the power to hurt him and she doesn't misuse it.

Finally (and this is very good), Elaine acknowledges that she choose to duck her head underwater, to avoid, to continue to expect the worst. To retreat inside herself. She thinks, “It’s complicated.” I like that notion in a book.

Definitely an enjoyable novella. The presentation is top notch, the price is a steal and many interesting issues are raised. The time frame troubled me as did the heroine’s rather anemic life until the hero reappeared on the scene. A few incidents took me out of the story: a word choice, a heroine who is accomplished at tying knots but I quibble. Milan sets a very high standard.

* Giving credit where credit is due: Janet/Robin from Dear Author coined the mistorical tag.
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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

"Were tampons a word in 1840? Was this intended as a wink for the reader? It took me into mistorical territory: the word tampon was first used in 1848. "

Oh snap. I enjoyed reading your review, Janet. I bought this but haven't read it yet.

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