Spoiler Alert!: I only read romance novels this past winter. No, I’m not kidding. (And yes, I am including A Murder in Time in that description.) So if romance novels aren’t your jam, tune in sometime near December when I finally get around to reviewing the books I read in March.
Come on. You know I’m right.
So The Heiress Effect is the second book in Courtney Milan’s “Brothers Sinister” series, following The Duchess War. The “brother” in this story is Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke who was raised by his mother and her husband (not his real father) in humble circumstances. He has used his circumstances to be a member of the House of Lords (I think – it may be the House of Commons, but I’m also not going to search through the book to find out which one it is. Not just because I’m incredibly lazy, but mostly because I read this on my Kindle app) and now Oliver wants to pass a voting reform bill (or something – it’s a MacGuffin, y’all, it doesn’t matter) and his mentor, the Marquess of Bradenton, is determined to undermine him at every turn.
Enter Jane Fairfield.
Jane is the titular Heiress, sitting on a fortune of over 100,000 pounds. Her uncle is pushing her to marry because that’s not a thing that has ever changed in over four hundred years of human civilization. Jane doesn’t really want to marry – or, at least, not until her younger sister, Emily, reaches her majority.
See, Emily has epilepsy. Except in the context of the story – and again, I can’t remember what year this is supposed to take place – there hasn’t been a medication program discovered for epilepsy, so Emily and Jane’s uncle keeps bringing all these quack doctors to the house, hoping to cure Emily so she also can be marketable as a future wife.
“So let me understand. You are proposing to deliver as many electric shocks as you like to my sister, for an indeterminate amount of time, on a theory for which you have no evidence other than a wild guess.”
“That hardly seems fair!” he squawked. “I haven’t even had a chance –”
“Oh, no,” Emily said, speaking up at last. “He’s demonstrated that he can cause a convulsion in me with his current. I told him that it wasn’t the same kind of fit that I have. It doesn’t feel the same at all. But it is, after all, only my body. What do I know?”
Jane couldn’t speak for the black rage that filled her. She’d wanted to protect Emily. Why did her uncle have to bring in these fools?
“Exactly,” the charlatan said. “I am the expert on galvanics. What would she know?” [Chapter 6, p. 65]
Ha ha ha nothing has changed when it comes to women’s health care and also women’s autonomy over their own bodies!
If Jane gets married, she’ll go to live with her husband, leaving Emily at the mercy of her uncle and his quacks. But if she can remain single until Emily reaches her majority, then she can accept responsibility for her sister, and they can move into a house together, where Jane can take care of Emily. So how does Jane keep from being proposed to?
She becomes the worst type of person.
Okay, not quite Mona-Lisa Saperstein, but only because that level of vapidity hadn’t been invented yet.
She purchases the worst dresses – at one point, she’s wearing a dress with bananas garishly printed on it. She insults everyone, but in the nicest way possible with a smile plastered on her face. She’s loud, she laughs annoyingly, and everyone hates her.
It’s just the way she likes it. Because if everyone hates her, then no one will propose, and her plan will work exactly as she hoped.
Here’s an example of how Jane plays dumb in talking to men who hate her, and it’s brilliant:
Young virgins simply did not engage in frank conversations about the government’s policy of locking up prostitutes. The disgruntled mutters about Miss Fairfield would turn into outrage.
“It’s simple,” Jane insisted. “I know just how to do it. Instead of just locking up the women who are suspected of being ill, we should lock up all the women. That way, the ones who are well can never get sick.”
At the foot of the table, Whitting scratched his head. “But … how would men use their services?”
“What do men have to do with it?” Jane asked.
“Um.” Lord James looked down. “I take your point, Bradenton. This is … perhaps not the best conversation to be having at the moment.”
“After all,” Jane continued, “if men were capable of infecting women, our government in its infinite wisdom would never choose to lock up only the women. That would be pointless, since without any constraint on men, the spread of contagion would never stop. It would also be unjust to confine women for the sin of being infected by men.” She smiled triumphantly. “And since our very good Marquess of Bradenton supports the Act, that could never be the case. He would never sign on to such manifest injustice.”
There was a longer pause at that. [Chapter 13, p. 141]
“What do men have to do with prostitution?” she asks. Dear god, I love this person so much.
Jane frequents a lot of the same parties that Oliver and Bradenton attend. And Bradenton haaaaaaaaates Jane. And so, he makes Oliver an offer: if Oliver can remove Jane from their social circle, then Bradenton will vote for Oliver’s voter reform act. Oliver, desperate for votes for his bill, agrees – but he’s not too happy about it.
However, the closer he gets to Jane, the more Oliver realizes that she’s pretending. And the more he sees her pretending, the more he likes her.
MEANWHILE, there’s a whole subplot about Emily! She sneaks out of her uncle’s house for a walk, and one day, she meets a law student named Anjan Bhattacharya. She realized she needed to take a break from her walk because she could feel one of her fits coming on, so she goes into a pub near Cambridge (the whole series takes place in Cambridge/Oxford instead of London) to hide and work through the fit and sits next to the law student from India. Anjan is the only Indian attending in his class, and has become the Token Diverse “Friend” of all the other white boys in his class.
Anjan was Batty because Bhattacharya had too many syllables. He’d told one man his first name; the fellow had blinked, and then had immediately dubbed him John. That’s who they thought he was: John Batty. These well-meaning English boys had taken his name as easily, and with as much jovial friendship, as their fathers had taken his country. [Chapter 16, p. 160]
But Emily wants to know his real name, and about his family, and about him. It’s not just because she’s starved for company – she takes a liking to Anjan. And he does to her as well.
And Emily had called him Bhattacharya. He’d fallen a little bit in love with her the moment she’d said his name as if it had value. [Chapter 16, p. 160]
They keep meeting on her afternoon walks, until her uncle realizes she’s been sneaking out. Then he practically locks her up in his house and forces Jane into a proposal.
There’s ALSO a subplot involving Oliver’s younger sister Free (possibly short for something, but again, not looking it up). Free wants to be the first woman to attend Cambridge (or maybe Oxford), and it’s for her that he’s promoting his voting reform act. There’s also his aunt, Aunt Freddy, an agoraphobic woman who lives by herself and desperately wants to see the world, and let me tell you, the resolution of that subplot and how it tied back to Jane and Emily was NOT something I saw coming and it was BEAUTIFUL AND WONDERFUL AND YES, I CRIED ON THE ELLIPTICAL.
But Free is awesome. She would fit right in on today’s Women’s Marches around the world.
“I worry about you,” he finally said to Free. “I’m afraid that you’re going to break your heart, going up against the world.”
“No.” The wind caught her hair and sent it swirling behind her. “I’m going to break the world.” [Chapter 8, p. 99]
And when Oliver learns that she is attending a women’s rally and he races to her because he fears for her safety:
Free refused to be ruffled. “You appear to believe it’s acceptable to risk that danger to come and, uh … rescue me.” She rolled her eyes. “I believe it’s acceptable to risk that danger to come and say that women deserve the vote. Why is your risk gallant and mine foolish?” [Chapter 17, p. 168]
I mean, she makes an excellent point, dude.
Oliver is, overall, a weak person. He capitulates to Bradenton for a good portion of the book, and in spite of what he wants. Even when he and Jane finally sleep together, he can’t even admit to himself that Jane is exactly what he wants:
He didn’t think she would expect anything of him. And he’d been careful. Yet part of him – some horrible, treacherous part – wished that he had taken less care. That he’d done everything he could to get her with child. That he’d have her forced upon him so that he could take the thing he wanted so badly without having to decide to do it. [Chapter 23, p. 208]
Take the thing(*) he wanted so badly without having to decide to do it. That’s what Oliver wants – to not have to decide, and yet get what he wants. (* I know in my heart of hearts that he/Ms. Milan didn’t mean to refer to Jane, a woman and a real, whole person, as a “thing”.) That’s what trips Oliver up – the deciding of things.
In the end, Oliver does decide – he asks Jane to be with him exactly as she is, to continue to talk too much, and speak her mind, and be her loud, flamboyant, amazing self. And she agrees – not as a prize, or as a gift, but as a woman, with her own agency.
And Anjon asks the uncle for Emily’s hand in marriage! And the uncle’s reaction is just about as horrible as you might expect, despite it not being violent or even that awful:
Mr. Fairfield didn’t say anything for a long while. His lips moved, as if he was arguing with himself … but at least he appeared to be arguing back. Finally, he straightened. “You’re Indian,” he finally said. “Doesn’t that mean that you have … special healing abilities? I think I remember hearing about them. Special …” He made a gesture. “Things. With stuff.”
[…] “Yes,” [Anjon] finally said. “I do things with stuff. How ever did you know?” [Chapter 27, p. 239]
Casual Racism! A Thing Then; A Thing Now!
But I’m going to leave you with the sentence that made me stop my elliptical because I was too busy crying to continue:
“The name,” [Emily] said primly, “is Bhattacharya. And since it’s going to be mine, you had best learn to pronounce it properly.” [Chapter 25, p. 230]
Grade for The Heiress Effect: 5 stars