There are certain tropes you expect to find in a Regency era romance. Indeed, it’s this familiarity of genre and the various executions and subversion of said traits that readers love about romance. Rose Lerner’s first novel in her Lively St Lemeston series offers a fresh take on familiar material yet remains imbued with all the things fans are looking for. The result is, and I say this with no hyperbole, one of the best books in the genre and my new favourite historical romance.
The story takes place during a General Election, with the race between the Whig and Tory candidates too close to call. Only certain citizens have the right to vote and the ability to gain that right is hard fought. The husband of a freeman’s daughter can gain a vote, and it’s this detail that drives much of the story. Widow Phoebe Sparks has a vote but she cannot cast it, so both sides of the political spectrum take it upon themselves to match her up with a suitable husband who can help swing the election in their favour. Matchmaking on behalf of the Whigs is Nicholas Dymond, a disgruntled earl left injured by a war wound who has no interest in politics but is quickly taken by Phoebe. Throw in a sister expecting a child out of wedlock, an awkward confectioner, family strife and love across the barriers of politics and Sweet Disorder is not short of action.
What makes Sweet Disorder stand out from the crowd are these subtle but refreshing differences as well as a focus on the oft-ignored class elements of regency stories. While the upper class torment is present here (and as juicy as ever), Lerner is more concerned with the political aspects of the era. Nick may be an earl but this is a decidedly middle-class story, free from the machinations of upper-society. The impeccably researched and richly depicted scene of country life in a small-town offers an intriguing insight into a world less concerned with the affairs dukes and more worried about those upper classes will do for the common man.
While the book is very aware of class, it is not consumed by it, and prefers to portray the differences between Phoebe and Nick on a more personal level. Both characters are often stubborn and unchangeable forces, moulded by their painful experiences and how their standings in the world have shifted. The progression of their relationship avoids the pitfalls of artifice and flows with an authenticity that demonstrates the best of the genre. The characters and story also benefit from having a strong supporting cast that cannot easily be divided into heroes and villains. Even the men set up as potential husbands for Phoebe are given a fair shake and could easily be interesting and unique romantic heroes in their own stories. Lerner trusts you to keep up with the various goings-on with no hand-holding or story dumps. The book also gets a big thumbs up for a plus size heroine (and having a cover with a plus size model) who is wholeheartedly adored and lusted after by the hero, a passion that comes to a climax with a surprisingly off-kilter sex scene.
Logically speaking, this is not a 5 star book – moments of tension seem driven by nothing more than a character refusing to spill important details until the plot demands it and the mothers of the leads are a touch too one-dimensional in their aims – but I just adored reading Sweet Disorder too much to knock it down a star (and if you know anything about me, you’ll know how rare such occurrences are). Lerner has crafted a romance that can proudly stand alongside the best the genre has to offer, thanks to her eye for detail, a vibrantly fashioned and emotionally consistent central relationship and a socially and politically conscious story that demands a second read.