Rating: 4 stars
Buy Link: Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Seamstress by day and author of sultry romance novels by night, Elizabeth Turtledove’s professional life is almost perfect. She has built her sartorial business from the ground up with chic designs and embellishes her garments with magical charms of her own creation upon request. She is surrounded by supportive friends and found the man of her dreams, Arthur Leicester. Now, Elizabeth is ready for the next step in life and if Arthur isn’t ready to pop the question after two years of courtship, she will.
Happily, Arthur takes the plunge and the two are about to be blissfully happy. There is just one small detail that needs to be ironed out: Jules Coxley is an artist of no small renown (some accuse him of magicking his art to be better than it is), Arthur’s lifelong friend and fiercest protector, and he hates Elizabeth with a passion. Coxley tries every trick in the book to convince Elizabeth she’s not what Arthur needs. He even threatens to reveal to Arthur that Elizabeth is behind a series of popular, salacious romance novels. Unfortunately for Coxley, it turns out to be an empty threat and, soon, his best friend is happily married. That marriage should have ended any hopes Coxley had for “saving” Arthur. Except Elizabeth knows how deeply intertwined Arthur and Coxley are and she is determined to ensure the men’s friendship grows alongside her marriage.
Elizabeth doesn’t have a plan per se, but she is willing to walk into the lion’s den if it means restoring Arthur and Coxley’s deep friendship. So Elizabeth commissions a portrait of herself from Coxley. Her initial hope is simply to build a bridge between herself and Coxley as a way to ease the path of friendship. What she discovers is far more complicated. Coxley is undoubtedly in love with Arthur. She can see that plainly in the way he’s secreted away sketches and portraits of Arthur, all crafted with more emotion than the beautiful works he sells. Elizabeth also realizes Arthur has feelings for Coxley, even as he shares his whole heart with her. When she married Arthur, Elizabeth vowed to make him happy…and is now realizing there are no limits on what she would do to make it happen. Her idea is simply to help these two acknowledge their secret hearts to one another, to give them the freedom to explore that love. Somewhere along the way, it turns into something even bigger than that for all three of them.
A Novel Arrangement is a historical fantasy from author Arden Powell set in 1920’s England and part of the Flos Magicae series, a group of standalone stories in a shared world. There are historical norms regarding gender, class, and sexual identities that mix with social constructs that seem specific to this story, notably the social difference between individuals who do and do not have magical abilities. One thing that caught my attention was how premarital sex and interracial marriages seemed to be an acceptable social norm, but only as one-man/one-woman arrangements; any other combination is still apparently shunned. With that cultural background and a hefty love-triangle on offer, I was desperate to know how the Elizabeth-Arthur-Coxley dynamic would play out.
Ultimately, I thought this was a good book, but not really my cup of tea. My biggest reservations stem from how the love triangle unfolds and concludes. The relationships between Arthur, Coxley, and Elizabeth are the whole point of the story, and I just wasn’t fully satisfied with how they spun out. The book initially gave me the idea that Elizabeth and Arthur are just a happy hetero couple. Then Coxley splashed on the page and it felt abundantly clear to me that he was head over heels in love with Arthur. However, I thought having a single character serve as the focal point for all the actions was too limiting, as we experience everything through Elizabeth’s eyes. We know she loves Arthur and he loves her in return. They share their lives completely as a married couple, having tender intimate moments and keeping no secrets. We experience her befriending an antagonistic Coxley and seeing true friendship grow there. Through Elizabeth, we (finally) realize that Arthur may love Coxley, but that he never acted on it or admitted it to anyone. But when the climactic scene for these three finally rolls around, it feels sudden because Arthur points out something Elizabeth (our only true touchstone in this story) didn’t realize herself. It was like getting a happy ending and having no time to revel in it.
The characters were interesting. Elizabeth is a marvelous, strong lead. She has to manage Coxley’s animosity, then the realization that he has unrequited feelings for Arthur. She has a writing hobby that has brought her some renown under her pen name, just as it also causes her some problems. These problems act as a way to show how strong she is of character, to cement her new friendship with Coxley, and bolster the one she has with other friends. Then there’s Coxley, a dashing rake who has a deliciously scandalous reputation he can and does use to his own advantage. He’s got breathtaking skill as an artist and is unfailingly loyal to Arthur. Eventually, he earns Elizabeth’s trust and becomes unfailingly loyal to her as well. And then, there’s Arthur, a man unwittingly in the middle of a love triangle. And yet, I feel like Arthur was little more than an avatar of “husband” and “best friend.” He has a tragic backstory that Coxley and Elizabeth know varying details about (which helps THEM bond, but not really develop Arthur on page), but his contributions to the story feel limited to kissing Elizabeth’s hair and making eyes at Coxley.
Fans of historical fiction will probably enjoy this. Anyone who appreciates strong female characters will adore Elizabeth. The romance aspect of the story takes the full length of the book to develop and feels hampered by the lack of variety in narrative perspective. To be honest, I had moments where I thought maybe this wasn’t a romance that would center any queer relationships, as Elizabeth loses the thread on helping her husband deal with his and Coxley’s unresolved feelings. The potential resolution to the love triangle brings about some big self-searching questions that seem to get addressed almost instantly, so we’re left with very little time to appreciate how the characters choose to move forward. A Novel Arrangement is beautifully written if you’re interested in a woman’s life in this reimagined era. Unfortunately, I thought some narrative choices seemed to stifle what I thought were supposed to be central queer themes of the romance.
This does sound intriguing, Camille. I appreciated hearing how the book did and did not work for you. I’m off to request a sample.