Saturday, 10 October 2015

Review: True Pretenses by Rose Lerner

4.5 stars

The hero of True Pretenses, Ash Cohen, and his brother Rafe are successful con men, so it's a surprise when Rafe decides he wants to live an honest life. Ash is upset and perplexed but he starts looking for a way to give Rafe what he wants. When he comes across Lydia Reeve, she seems like the answer to his prayers. With her father dead and her brother uninterested in the family's patronage of the local town, Lydia desperately needs her marriage portions released to her so she can continue to fund her charitable and political work. All Rafe has to do is make her like him, and then propose a marriage of convenience. But things become complicated when Lydia decides she would rather marry Ash, and Ash is forced to reveal a long-held secret that sends his brother running.

Even though Ash is the thieving son of a Jewish prostitute (his words, not mine), and Lydia is a aristocratic lady and consummate hostess, the two have a lot in common. They've both spent their lives dedicated to their younger brothers, and are cut adrift when their brothers no longer want such a close, quasi-parental relationship. Both also are used to working hard to ensure that people like them, and are unsure of who they are beneath this. Their interactions were witty and touching and, overall, they were one of the best couples I've read in a long time. I found their honesty with each other particularly refreshing. Unlike many characters, particularly heroines, both Ash and Lydia were mature, sensible and did not dissemble.

However, the stand-out aspect of this book was, for me, Ash and Rafe's Jewish heritage. It places them a precarious position, so much so that Ash has banned them from speaking Yiddish even when they are alone, and stays celibate so that no-one will know that he is circumcised. It was another stark reminder to my privileged little self how the long and bloody history of the European Jews neither starts nor ends with pogroms and the Holocaust. Lydia is forced to confront her prejudices; when speaking to Rafe, she makes a comment about blood libel, the persistent rumours and accusations that Jews stole Christian children to use for nefarious purposes in rituals. Rafe angrily replies:
"Stories like yours aren't real. They're an excuse to murder Jews in the street and feel good about it. What would we want your children for, when we can barely feed our own? If that filthy slander gets out in the town, they'll hang Ash to a lamppost." Loc. 1332
A few days after I finished True Pretenses I came across an article on We Need Diverse Books where 7 Jewish authors speak about their experiences of anti-Semitism, and together these two texts made me re-think the way I thought of anti-Semitism. When there was a prominent incident of anti-Semitism against schoolchildren in Sydney last year, I was befuddled, unable to understand how people could be holding this ugly sentiment when I had never seen or heard it, but I now realise I've just never noticed it before, because it wasn't directed at me and so I was oblivious to the micro-aggressions happening around me, or that I perpetrated myself. 

Moving back to True Pretenses, I felt the ending was not as strong as the rest of the book, but that could have been because it was past midnight and I was bleary-eyed and yet still didn't want it too end. I can't put my finger on what could have been done differently or better, I just felt like it was a fairly standard ending didn't conform to the rest of the book, which had been so devoid of tropes. However, the effect on my enjoyment of the book was negligible, and I'm only really bringing it up as a justification for not giving it 5 stars. I have dilly-dallied between giving this book 4.5 and 5 stars for the last week, and it's made me realise I should probably codify my rating system somewhere, so I'll be working on that next.

Overall, True Pretenses was the second of Rose Lerner's books I've read, and the first, A Lily Among Thorns, was equally wonderful. I'm excited to see what she produces in the future, and I really hope that Ash's little brother Rafe gets his own book.

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