heartbreak remakes the heart into a different organ

I just finished reading Meredith Duran’s At Your Pleasure – and though the cover was as gorgeous as ever, it was the first book of hers I didn’t love.

The prologue and first chapter made me feel fizzy and dark with, well, pleasure. It was brimful of the kind of romantic angst that’s been missing in all these lovely, nuanced, thoughtful romances people have been writing. It begins:


Adrian had abandoned the lathered horse a mile behind. He ran now, his feet no sooner striking the ground than lifting again, all his instincts and memories combining to aid him, directing him sure-footedly and safely over the darkened field where he had played as a boy and later loved her as a man.


This woman can write. Which is why my overwhelming feeling is “puzzled”; I can’t entirely figure out why this book did the opposite of wowing me.

The most convincing reason I’ve been able to come up with is that the “childhood lovers reunite” trope is incredibly difficult to do – and Duran didn’t quite manage to pull it off.

The premise: Adrian and Nora were neighbours and lovers in their youth, but as one was Catholic and the other Protestant there was no way they could marry. Their families intervened and helped cause one hell of a misunderstanding between them – major heartbreak included. They spend six years at court pretending not to notice the other exists – until Nora’s husband dies, and Adrian turns up at her country estate to arrest her treasonous brother.

The problem was, the heartbreak had changed them both irrevocably, but I never felt they got to know each other now well enough for their love to be convincing. It seemed to all stem from that earlier love that was clearly juvenile and careless, if also true.

I wanted them to just be in a room together and talk. Then talk some more. In fact, the most riveting scene in the whole book is when Adrian practices sleep-depravation torture on Nora, trying to get answers from her. They’re both worn down by it until they can’t help but be honest – and it’s not the treason that comes out, but the truth about their past.

The thing about first love is this: To get over it – to truly accept that you’re not magically going to be allowed to have that person because you really really want them – you have to change. It’s the only option. You have to become a person who doesn’t need them.

You have to outgrow them.

So it’s a lovely daydream that you might one day be thrown into a situation with that person where you can’t avoid each other or help but sort your history out – but that’s all it is: a daydream. It feels wrong to me to see it happen, because all my own experience disproves it.

When you’ve had to go through that moving-on – if you’ve ever attempted to go back to a lover and discovered the heartbreak of no longer fitting – you don’t forget it.

I needed conversation. And more conversation. I needed them to experience how ill they fit, compared to the dream of how well they fit. I needed to watch them surprise each other – and when the past turned up at unexpected moments to hurt/delight them, I needed it to be a complex thing that didn’t fit easily into the present.

The fit was so wrong, for me, that I ended up shipping Nora and the young spoilt nobleman in Adrian’s company who was obviously going to end up doing something villainous. He at least, I thought, would be something new for her. Something she didn’t know she wanted for herself. And she would have shown him the gulf between who he was and the man he might be.

Plus, I find it hard to go past a sulky man in ostentatious clothing.

Comments 6 Responses

  1. bleuet

    “Plus, I find it hard to go past a sulky man in ostentatious clothing.” πŸ˜€
    Your recent posts ar so great… I feel I should hurry up and fall in love with someone, if only so I can finally fully comparahend what you are writing! *shakes head*
    Yes, this would probably help me get into the genre, too…
    Come on sulky man in ostentious clothing, ride my way!

  2. londonmabel

    My WIP has this sort of reunited ex-lovers thing going on. I’ll keep your post handy for when I’m revising! I did just write up a lot of scenes where they connect again, talk about the past, start making jokes with each other, getting that rapport back.

    Well… Austen managed it with Persuasion so it must be possible! πŸ˜‰ Oh and MM Kaye with The Far Pavilions–I think that’s when I fell in love with that trope and always wanted to attempt it myself. (Except in FP they were children when they first knew each other, so that averts the issues you’re mentioning.)

    1. anna cowan Post author

      To my shame I’d never heard of The Far Pavilions before now! It sounds amazing – I’ll have to get my hands on a copy. I talked a lot in this post about how the reality of the fantasy might not be what we think – but that doesn’t stop the fantasy from being a powerful one. It’s so full of the nostalgic longing that accompanies growing up. So it’s an absolute corker when someone pulls it off!

      Persuasion’s a great example. I got myself into a fierce debate on twitter yesterday by defending Henry Crawford (I don’t care what anyone says, Fanny should have ended up with him!), but the one thing we all agreed on was that Persuasion was far and away the most romantic JA novel. Without thinking about it too deeply, some of the reasons it works for me:

      Anne has matured and come to know herself better in the intervening years. She’s become a woman who can make her own choices – and you can’t help but feel she’s also become a woman who can hold her own with Wentworth (truly gain his respect, as well as his affection) and fall in love seeing clearly what love is. Wentworth gives full vent to his hurt – and it’s so great that Austen let Anne “lose her looks” so that when Wentworth first sees her there’s no immediate reason for him to fall back in love with her. He expects that he knows exactly who she is, so the truth of her takes him by surprise. He looks at her, and has to reevaluate her. He falls in love with the woman, not the shadow of the girl.

      And now I have to read Persuasion again! πŸ™‚

  3. Kat

    I enjoyed this book, but I also enjoyed reading your criticism of it. (And by extension, I’m looking forward to the day your book is published so I can read it.)

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I really wish I’d found the “in” into this book! But of course it’s always interesting to try and figure out why something doesn’t work for your own personal tastes. I think her next book is back to her normal era, and maybe that will make all the difference. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was something so simple!

      Oh, and I look forward to you reading my book too! (Though yikes – reviews! That’ll be a whole new thing.)

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