by Connie Brockway, historical (1998)
Dell, $5.99, ISBN 0-440-22375-X
My Dearest Enemy is considered one of this author's best books and rightly so. I rarely have a book that has my attention engaged entirely from the first word and see me having to sit on my hands to stop myself from making a fool of myself by writing an email to the author insisting that she publish a sequel containing the entire correspondence between the hero Avery Thorne and the heroine Lillian Bede now.
Lily and Avery have an unlikely person to thank for bringing them together. The annoying and overbearing Horatio Algernon Thorne can't resist sticking it to his least favorite family members even after his death. He knows that his sickly nephew Avery wants the family home known as the Mill House so he decides to leave it to a distant relative Lily instead. And since Lily is a suffragist and hence another useless person in Horatio's estimation, he lets her know clearly that she will have to run Mill House and the lands that come with it and show a profit in five years. If she fails, she can remain only if she publicly announces that a woman's place is at home and gives up her suffragist ways.
Both characters are far from amused at the way Horatio toys with them. For now, Lily is the winner. Her temporary ownership of Mill House also means that this 19-year old is Avery's guardian! She is always looking for a place to call her own and she vows that she will run Mill House successfully. Avery, on his part, leaves for abroad a humiliated but not defeated man. He will return in five years to settle the score with Lily. She can't succeed... can she?
But since Lily is Avery's guardian, this means that they have to get in touch with each other somehow, and here is where the fun starts. Lily and Avery's letters see them at first taking some cheap potshots at each other, but as the years pass, their letters take on a different tone. Here, Ms Brockway really proves that she knows what it means to show rather than tell - the letters are still playful at times but the nuances in phraseology and the tone in these correspondences evolve so much so that the reader can easily read between the lines to detect the growing warmth and camaraderie and even respect the two have for each other.
Avery, to everyone's surprise (including his), turns into a handy explorer whose writings make him a famous household name. On her part, Lily works hard while taking the opportunity to hire unwed mothers to staff Mill House (hey, they come cheap and Lily is a suffragist) and learn the intricacies of sheep shearing. It's not easy though - the male staff members and farm workers do not warm up to the idea of working under a woman. The odds feel insurmountable, but she's sure that she will get the profits she need to own Mill House permanently. Then one day Avery comes home. Oh dear, now the two people will have to reconcile the other person each of them knows mostly through perceptions formed from correspondences with the real person before him or her.
Both Avery and Lily want Mill House, but Ms Brockway wisely chooses to have these two communicating and even cooperating instead of needlessly trying to sabotage each other. There are initial mistrust as to the other person's motives, but only for a short while before these two start getting reverting back to the Lily and Avery that wrote those letters. Avery is a really fun hero. He may have turned into a hunky hot-bodied and hirsute hero but he has never shed his inner geek. Uncomfortable with the attention of his admirers, all he wants is a home and a woman to love, and it doesn't take long for him to figure out that Lily is that person he wants to share his life in Mill House with. Lily is a tougher nut to crack though as she is adamantly against the idea of marriage, having seen his own mother suffer from the lack of protection the law offers to women trapped in unhappy marriages. It is hard to fully describe the relationship between Avery and Lily here with words. Let's just say it's a near-perfect take on the friends-turned-lovers story.
The secondary cast is quite fun, although they aren't nearly as enjoyable or memorable as Avery, the geek and hero and sweetheart all rolled into one. There are the expected saucy unwed mothers, the boy Bernard whom Lily takes in along with his mother Evelyn when Evelyn's husband passed away and left the two of them with nowhere to go. Most readers seem to miss the very subtle lesbian relationship between Evelyn and Lily's acerbic mentor that broke her leg while visiting Mill House and ends up staying with the gang always. On one hand, I'm not too keen on yet another "feminists are lesbians" stereotype, but Ms Brockway also makes a clear case on Evelyn being a clear closet case that has never enjoyed her intimacies with her husband. So chalk this book too as one of the few romance novels that have a respectful - if very, very subtle - portrayal of homosexual relationships.
The only problem I have with this book is that Ms Brockway seems to have no idea on how to resolve the problem of Lily's inability to commit to Avery. She uses a plot device to force them to sleep together - a plot device that literally makes me groan because it's a huge contrivance that is just not worthy of a story that otherwise is so good in every other way. I'm also puzzled as to why Lily and Avery must get married. Avery respects Lily's suffragist beliefs until that point. It seems odd that this story acknowledges the lack of protection offered to women during the late 19th century but has Lily consenting to marry Avery anyway. Perhaps the author is trying to make a point about the sanctity of marriage, perhaps? Trust, maybe? I don't know, but it feels like a huge cop-out that after all of Lily's talk of independence, she has to be the one to make concessions in her beliefs to get Avery.
The only consolation I get from this disappointing turn of events is that Avery is obviously a good guy that will never betray Lily's trust in him. That's Avery - he's the perfect boyfriend: the shy but dependable smart kid that lets you copy him in exams while looking like the football captain. You can introduce him to your parents and have wild hot sex in the backseat of his Daddy's car at the same time. And he'll still call like he promised. Or something. If I am to make a list of my favorite heroes of all time, Avery Thorne's in that list. If I have my way though, Avery would a virgin when he came to Lily (excuse the pun), but that's just me.
The epilogue makes up for my disappointment with this story. Normally I don't go for cutesy epilogues, but this one is just perfect because it manages to quiet down the grumbles collecting at the back of my mind as it shows how Lily and Avery still remain strong as best friends, lovers, allies, and spouses as time goes by. That's the thing here: Ms Brockway has managed to make me care so much for these two characters that I need to know that they will be alright. And when I read of the book of correspondences between Lily and Avery that Bernard published, I want so badly to read that book, never mind that it doesn't exist. Ms Brockway is playing me like a violin in this book, bless her.
Funny, really sexy with delicious sexual tension one can cut with a knife, and with enough moments of poignancy (Lily's letter to Avery when he needed solace after a personal tragedy took place was surprisingly wise and it marked the moment when Avery began falling for Lily), My Dearest Enemy is one of those books that demand to be read and reread. It is books like My Dearest Enemy that keep me waiting eagerly and impatiently for the author's every new book, hoping that she will deliver another book that will knock my socks off. And since she has already done so with several books during her career, I'm confident that she will do so again, hopefully soon.
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