Review: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

I came to this novel for the Brontë connection, hoping for a really good historical fiction about real-life people. I got a powerful tour de force about the limited lives of even upper class British women in the mid 19th century.

What it’s about:

From the Goodreads blurb:

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.

But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.

I’ve never been all that interested in Branwell Brontë (not like his fascinating sisters), but I was definitely intrigued by the idea of a fictionalized account of his affair with Mrs. Robinson.

My thoughts:

This book is so well written. I have more highlighted passages on my Kindle for this one than for any other book I’ve read recently. Gorgeous and lush prose, obviously meticulously researched, fascinating and intoxicating. It was nearly impossible to put down once I got started—first because of the tension between Lydia Robinson and Branwell, later just to see what Lydia would do next.

Neither Lydia nor Branwell are very likable characters. Lydia Robinson is complex: lonely, sad, passionate, desperate, selfish, shallow… she made me so mad at some points in the story, but at other points I realized she’s very much a product of her time and place. She’s a smart, emotional woman who is oppressed and limited, judged and neglected. Branwell is really a secondary character, and that’s just fine—he’s the tortured, struggling soul that does sort of get chewed up and spit out by his Mrs. Robinson, but I love the way he’s written here. The slow building of the romantic tension between these two is palpable and their inevitable relationship is scorchingly hot.

Despite being the titular mistress, Lydia is much more than an older, married woman dallying with a younger, freer artistic type. She’s a wife who very much loved her early relationship with her husband, is mourning the loss of a young child and her own mother, has a complicated relationship with her teenaged daughters, and is dealing with her own aging and loss of relevance. I couldn’t stand her, I was rooting for her, I wanted her to get on with her affair, I wanted her to go to her husband, I wanted her to be a better mother, I wanted her to find what she needed… and I mainly felt horrible for her and the limited options she had. Just listen to her:

‘It was tiring, always calculating how I might appear best, but what other options were available to me? If I had to tie myself to a mast—and I had to—it might as well be to the grandest, proudest ship.’

and…

‘He saved me and destroyed me all at once, taught me I could still feel so I could discover that I needed more than him.’

and especially:

‘There were women from here to England, crying over curtain fabric, scolding their children, and aching for change and love or, at least, excitement. And most, if not all, of them would be disappointed. Their fate and mine was too common to be the stuff of tragedy.’

I can’t finish this review without also mentioning how starstruck I was when the Brontë sisters were mentioned or appeared. Especially Charlotte, of course.

This book is an astoundingly good debut. I can’t wait to see what Finola Austin does next.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Review: The Lion’s Den by Katherine St. John

A friend of mine was excited about this book, and I requested it on NetGalley hoping for a steamy summer read. I didn’t find the 🔥 I was looking for, but it was definitely an engaging book.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

Belle likes to think herself immune to the dizzying effects of fabulous wealth. But when her best friend, Summer, invites her on a glamorous getaway to the Mediterranean aboard her billionaire boyfriend’s yacht, the only sensible answer is yes. Belle hopes the trip will be a much-needed break from her stalled acting career and uniquely humiliating waitressing job, but once she’s aboard the luxurious Lion’s Den, it soon becomes clear this jet-setting holiday is not as advertised.

Belle’s dream vacation quickly devolves into a nightmare as she and the handful of other girls Summer invited are treated more like prisoners than guests by their controlling host-and in one terrifying moment, Belle comes to see Summer for who she truly is: a vicious gold digger who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

I don’t watch tv in general, and I’ve never seen any of those Real Housewives shows that some other reviews have compared this book to, but I watched my share of soap operas in high school and college. This book is pretty soapy, friends.

My thoughts

I need to give the author lots of credit for what she’s done here: this book is structured in just such a way as to keep the reader invested, and once I got going I found it very hard to stop reading. The dual timelines are used brilliantly: we have the current-day storyline where the girls are on their trip, with flashbacks starting in Summer and Belle’s teen years and leading right up (eventually) to the days before the trip. This was a smart way to gradually unfold the story and allow for some jaw-dropping reveals near the end. So, while it’s not the most polished, lyrical, beautiful writing I usually rave about, it’s very cleverly done. Also, I don’t think I’ve read the word ‘countenance’ this many times in a modern novel. 🤔

The story itself is a contemporary thriller all about a group of gorgeous, rather superficial women, some of whom are blatant cliched gold-diggers and most of whom have very questionable morals. Our main character, Belle, is a bit different from the rest because she likes to read (try not to roll your eyes) and isn’t rich, sponging off a rich man, or in search of her own sugar daddy, but at the same time, she seems perfectly content for most of the book to call these women her friends. The women attend lavish parties, exclusive restaurants, clubs, and festivals while struggling to afford their designer clothes, bags, and shoes even before their luxurious trip (on a private plane, of course) to the Mediterranean, where they are to cruise for a week on a private yacht and hobnob with the super wealthy. And they understand they are to be eye candy for rich men.

Really, there’s not much I like about this premise, the money- and beauty-centric story, or these annoyingly bitchy characters, so imagine my surprise when I ended up liking The Lion’s Den. Yes, it’s annoying, but it wasn’t predictable, and the last half of the book was addicting and genuinely exciting. I even thought Belle had a lot more substance to her than expected, although in the end it all comes back around to exorbitant sums of money, womanizers, and private helicopters.

All in all, a good fun, trashy summer read. If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, this would have been a good beach read. Although, I generally like my trashy novels to have a lot more (and a lot less icky) sex. Just putting that out there. 😂

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thanks to NetGalley, the author, and the publisher for my free copy in exchange for an honest review, and for the fun diversion.