Listen the Moon is one of the most unusual and most interesting historical romances that I’ve read it a long while. For the most part, the historical romance genre is saturated in romance featuring heroes and heroines of the upper echelons of society, or at least one member of the romantic duo is of the upper class. I will admit to being totally fine with this – who doesn’t love a duke, or a marquis in disguise, or a pirate who’s really an earl? But, Rose Lerner takes readers right out of the world of privilege and focuses her romance between two servants (who are not secretly of the nobility, to be clear), which makes Listen to the Moon a refreshing read.
John Toogood is a valet down on his luck and is looking for a new position after his master has had a reversal in fortune. A plum position has come up as the butler for a vicarage; however, John’s prospective employer requires that the successful applicant be a married man. Needless to say, John is not married, but he has been involved in a harmless, mutual flirtation with the much younger halfhearted maid-of-all-work, Sukey Grimes. While their work ethics are vastly different, John wants the butler position and having just lost a position of her own Sukey is reluctantly willing to marry John so that they can work at the vicarage.
The story in Listen to the Moon is simple and there’s not really a lot of extra drama going on. This is a romance through and through, and its focus is on the main characters and their relationship. John and Sukey marry fairly early in Listen to the Moon, so the bulk of the novel is their adjustment to married life. While they had attraction on their side, both John and Sukey have a hard time adjusting to marriage. For his part, John is worried that he took advantage of Sukey as she is so much younger than he (he’s forty and she’s in her twenties) and is afraid to rely on her too much:
She’d been lonely and afraid, young and inexperienced, and he’d used it to talk her into a marriage that she’d turned down when she had a job.
The more he wanted her, the more he needed her, the more he asked her for – the less chance she would have to be the woman she’d wanted to be, who stood on her own two feet, who had nothing between her and the sun. The less chance she’d have to discover what she really wanted. He’d been collecting his burdens for forty years. Even if they’d grown heavy for him, she was too young to be asked to shoulder half.
On Sukey’s part, she was initially determined not to marry. After seeing the disaster of her parent’s marriage, Sukey wanted to be independent, and she struggles with her reasons for marrying John:
She looked terribly sad all of a sudden. “I think I want to marry you.” Her eyes filled, a tear slipping down her cheek.
John didn’t know what to say. “I never intended the idea to make you so unhappy.
“I meant to get by on my own. I ignored my mother when she said I’d end up in the workhouse. I didn’t want to need help. I don’t want to get married only to have some man to take care of me.”
“It isn’t weak to wish for a helpmeet.”
The inner conflict that both John and Sukey experience is the meat of Listen to the Moon and it’s what makes this book such a romantic read. Rather than combating external forces, it’s each other’s hang-ups that provide the tension in novel. I loved seeing John and Sukey struggle with their need for each other, while refusing to be too dependent on the other. It was a lovely journey watching as they learned to lean on each other and trust that they were not taking advantage of what was being offered. While I don’t think this more subdued style of romance is for everyone, I think Rose Lerner is a must read for anyone that is a fan of Mary Balogh, especially if you often think Balogh’s romances need a little more steam.
What I also found interesting about Listen to the Moon was the details about life as a servant. Both John and Sukey are servants in a household and their work is not always glamorous. This is not the historical romance where the hero and heroine put on their fancy duds and dance the night away while enjoying carriage rides by day. John and Sukey both have to work very hard and amidst all this time spent working they also have to find time to be together and get to know one another. Real life often intruded on John and Sukey’s romantic life and it was up to them to find some sort of balance. I loved this hint of realism in Listen to the Moon; it’s not only important from a historical standpoint as an aspect of working life, but also an element that I think makes this read more timeless than some of the other historical romances that I’ve read. The development of John and Sukey’s relationship in spite of their working lives was very, very well done.
Ultimately, I thought Listen to the Moon was an amazing historical romance, and the perfect read for historical romance fans who are looking for something refreshingly different in their genre reading. Listen to the Moon is also especially intriguing for readers who like their romance focused on the relationship between the hero and heroine rather than in addition to many external factors. While Listen to the Moon was surprisingly explicit, it was always deeply emotional, which was a very good thing.
As I mentioned in my review, Mary Balogh immediately came to mind when I started Listen to the Moon. The emotional depth and emphasis on relationship creation is something that Balogh also does really, really well. While Balogh’s historicals are less explicit than Lerner’s, I think fans of romances that focus almost exclusively on a relationship will find much to appreciate with Balogh. There are many Balogh historicals that focus on the hero and heroine building their marriage, and it’s a theme that I think Balogh does really well. Probably my favourite so far is Only Enchanting, which features a hero scarred by war and a heroine that finds out he married her for all the wrong reasons. Balogh does an impressive job of tackling their anger and resentment towards one another.
For a more literary take on romance in the servant class, I think Jo Baker’s Longbourn is an excellent read. While this one re-imagines Pride & Prejudice from the servant’s perspective, there’s also a healthy romantic thread below stairs. Further, Longbourn never shies away from the harsh realities of the life of a servant, which I think fans of Listen to the Moon will appreciate. See my full review here.