We have saying in our bookstore: Frontlist may bring customers through the door, but it’s the backlist that brings them back. Book lovers are completists. Bookstores that can fill the gaps in their ever-increasing collections quickly become favourite stops. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of putting it all together, of finally finally owning all the books by a much-loved author. Of course, neither is there any pleasure to equal the joy in the discovery of a new favourite. Like, say, one of the recent additions to my pantheon of must-haves: Tamara Lejeune.
Lejeune is not, strictly speaking, precisely ‘new’: her first Regency novel came out in late 2005. But since I didn’t discover her until this past March, she counts as new to me. I picked up her first book, Simply Scandalous, on a whim, and went back the next day for the second, Surrender To Sin. Her third book, Rules For Being A Mistress, arrived in May. And that, so far, is it.
And I really mean it: to date I have found no information at all about Tamara Lejeune. No author website; nothing on Google but listings; even Wikipedia failed me. This frustrates my inquisitive impulse, but it also intrigues me. No website? In this day and age? That could be due to a dearth of time, or know-how, or even money (especially since her books are sold at $5.99 and $6.99 – not exactly great for royalties). But all of that is conjecture. What remains is only the work, the books themselves.
I did find a few reviews on personal websites, but not many, and most of them contradicted each other. If nothing else, it was a valuable exercise: while we may read the same text, we’re not always reading the same book. Reviews for Simply Scandalous, ranged from “Wonderful!” to “Disappointing!”, and what one reviewer found hysterically funny another found dull. The story is about Juliet Wayborn, a wealthy gentlewoman, whose older brother Cary is beaten the night before a curricle race. His attackers claim to have been sent by his opponent Lord Swale. Infuriated, Juliet humiliates Swale in public. Swale is enraged in turn, and determines to best Juliet at her own game. Of course it is only to be expected that impassioned defiance turns into passionate attachment.
Lejeune does a number of things very well. For all that there were a few first novel stumbles, she has a good grasp of the historical aspects of the Regency period, particularly those that pertain to social dynamics. The book’s sense of humour was lively, occasionally obvious but usually subtle. But what really struck me was how she truly excelled at something I rarely see done well: the trope of the hero and heroine who dislike each other.
As a trope, it’s more of a cliche, and sadly abused. Sometimes it’s dropped in for plot purposes and feels noticeably fake. Foot stomping, hair tossing and barked orders do not equal dislike. In other cases the emnity seems all too real, which makes a successful conversion into love unbelievable, not to mention unwise. Geoffrey Swale and Juliet Wayborn avoid both these traps.
For one, neither character is entirely likeable to start. Swale, the son of duke, is utterly unused to correction in any form. His dress, deportment and erudition are all lacking. Juliet herself isn’t without fault: she can be thoughtless when it comes to others, including her own family. But despite – or possibly because of – their flaws, they appealed to me. And before long, they appeal to one another as well.
What Lejeune captures so well is people behaving badly. Sometimes for good reason, though often not, and usually in the presence of someone the perpetrators would prefer to impress. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had people in our lives who make us act like fools, or children. Or worse, like teenagers: sullen, rude and disobliging. And sometimes the knowlege that we’ve acted badly is enought to make us act worse. Then hopefully, eventually, better.
Because change is the point, and Juliet and Geoffrey illustrate it perfectly. Aggravation becomes attraction. Attraction gains depth as it surmounts and changes behavior, and becomes love. It’s hard to do properly, but Tamara Lejeune manages the task with ease. Next up, a website!
Chris Szego never behaves badly. Never.
That’s one of the best recommendations I’ve seen in a while. I love imperfect characters, and decent characters who behave badly, and best of all decent characters who behave badly without an outlandish excuse like simultaneous plague, maiming, bankruptcy, and torture. Too many novels feature characters whose flaws are really assets (e.g. she’s so beautiful he can’t trust her), or characters who are perfect except for occasional, inexplicable foot-stomping and pouting.