Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect is a wonderfully complicated tangle of a book. And this review is full of spoilers and I’m sorry, but I simply cannot write about what is so great about this book without talking about a bunch of things in detail.
And I know I’ve raved about Milan’s books before and every time I finish one of them I think, “Self, there’s no way the next book is going to be as good as this one,” and then: the next one is even better. These are extraordinary books on so many levels.
I’m just going to copy and paste the blurb from Milan’s website because I’d rather talk about things other than the basic plot summary when it comes to this book.
Miss Jane Fairfield can’t do anything right. When she’s in company, she always says the wrong thing—and rather too much of it. No matter how costly they are, her gowns fall on the unfortunate side of fashion. Even her immense dowry can’t save her from being an object of derision.
And that’s precisely what she wants. She’ll do anything, even risk humiliation, if it means she can stay unmarried and keep her sister safe.
Mr. Oliver Marshall has to do everything right. He’s the bastard son of a duke, raised in humble circumstances—and he intends to give voice and power to the common people. If he makes one false step, he’ll never get the chance to accomplish anything. He doesn’t need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn’t need to fall in love with her. But there’s something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can’t resist…even though it could mean the ruin of them both.
Okay, now that we know what’s going on, more or less, on to more interesting things.
This book is both a romance novel and a dissection of power and how it works in Western society–it’s really remarkable how Milan manages this, considering that so many other historical–and other subgenre–romance writers completely disregard this aspect of their stories.
From the beginning of the book, we see Oliver contrasted with Bradenton, a marquess. Oliver, as the illegitimate son of a duke, has some claim on power but not much and thus he feels that he must curry favor with those above him.
Bradenton explains this right at the beginning of the book:
“But the riffraff usually manage themselves,” Bradenton continued. “That’s the point of an institution like Cambridge. Anyone can aspire to a Cambridge education, so everyone who aspires chooses to start here. If you do it right, by the time they’ve finished their degrees, the most ambitious ones have become just like us. Or at least, they want to enter our ranks so badly that the next thing you know, all their ambition has been subsumed into the greater glory.”
And this is what Oliver has done. He has things he wants to accomplish and he’s willing to put his ambition into service to the likes of Bradenton in order to achieve his goals–in this case, extending the franchise to more adult men (but not women!–and this comes up later in the book with Free, his marvelous youngest sister).
Enter Jane. She’s an heiress who dresses and acts obnoxiously–and not without cause, though. Oliver doesn’t know that right away and when he first meets her he’s taken aback at her appearance (“But looking at her was like picking up a luxurious peach and discovering it half-taken over by mold.”) and demeanor but he also finds himself charmed as well. Jane can tell that he’s intrigued and while she wants–desperately–for friends, she can’t allow herself any, not if she’s going to save her sister from their uncle Titus (who is Awful, more about him in a bit).
It is at this point, where Oliver is intrigued by Jane that Bradenton makes his demand: if Oliver will put Jane in her place, publicly, Bradenton will not only deliver his vote but also the votes of his cronies–nine votes total–for the extension of the franchise: “It’s one annoying girl against your entire future.” And thus, Oliver is torn. He doesn’t want to do to Jane what was done to him but he also needs those votes. And then–he tells Jane what’s been asked of him and still, she trusts him. It’s really remarkable the way she comes to trust him so quickly even as he tells her that he will betray her:
“Anyone in my position, anyone born without power, who aspires to more… Trust me, I didn’t arrive here by standing on principle my entire life. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when it must be shut, to do what a man in power asks because he asks it. I count myself lucky that I’ve survived as unscathed as I have. Don’t fool yourself, Miss Fairfield. I could hurt you. Badly.”
But Jane, stalwart defender of her sister, Jane who wears clothing as armor and as weapon, oh Jane: she declares that he’s her favorite betrayer and they enter into an friendship with each other.
Why does Jane’s sister, Emily, need defending? They both live with their uncle Titus who is so, so, so very concerned with Emily’s well-being–she has a convulsive disorder, see, and must be kept safe. And Jane is a terrible influence and Titus, being possessed of a penis, naturally knows what is best for them both. He means well but he doesn’t see them as people and he certainly doesn’t listen to either of them–he is a gaslighter extraordinaire. It is, at time, extremely difficult to read both Jane and Emily’s interactions with Titus for this reason. He is the very model of a well-meaning major sexist: he is steeped in privilege and the patriarchy and he has always been comfortable and both Jane and Emily make him uncomfortable and he isn’t sure how to deal with that except through paternalism and threats.
Titus also has a habit of allowing anyone who can convince him that they may be able to help Emily experiment on her–and Jane has established a procedure by which she bribes members of the household staff as well as the quacks in question to leave Emily alone (the way Jane wields money in this book is fascinating–she throws money around in a very hero-esque way). There’s a harrowing scene near the beginning with a galvanist who wants to apply electrical shocks to Emily and it is later revealed that she was also subjected to aversion therapy in the form of red hot pokers. It’s truly appalling and since Emily is not of age and since Titus is her guardian, without Jane’s money she would be dealing with more than not being allowed outside or a free choice of reading material.
The constraints on both Jane and Emily are real. Jane is allowed to live with her sister and their uncle as long as she’s actively looking for a husband–but she also knows that as soon as she receives an offer, any offer, she will have to accept. And she is unwilling to do that until Emily is of age. But her inheritance makes her a target for fortune hunters and impoverished nobles, so she must put on a persona to undermine her efforts on that front. Emily is not of age and has a medical condition: her position is, as becomes clear through the course of the novel, is more tenuous than even Jane’s is.
And yet: despite her tenuous position, Emily doesn’t actually need Jane to defend or save her–she ultimately saves herself in what is one of my favorite secondary romances ever in a romance.
While out for an illicit and unchaperoned walk, Emily begins to feel a seizure coming on. She ducks into a nearby inn and sits down to wait for it to pass–her seizures aren’t what we normally picture when it comes to seizures–more of an absence seizure than the tonic-clonic type. She happens to sit down at a table that’s already occupied–by a young law student named Anjan Bhattacharya. They strike up an acquaintance. Emily tells Anjan where she’ll be walking the next week and he just happens to be there–then it’s two walks a week, then three before she’s discovered by her uncle (to be sneaking out, not to who she’s sneaking out to see).
They talk around the subject of a more permanent relationship between them, but they both are aware of how difficult it would be. They appreciate each other for themselves, but there’s also a vast cultural divide between them, one that is made abundantly clear in a scene early in their relationship as Emily is trying to explain a point of English culture to Anjan and mentions that Napoleon was horrible (an amazingly common trope in historical romances–I’d go so far to say that Napoleon is often cast as a 19th century Hitler in these books) and he proceeds to tell her about the Sepoy Mutiny. This is, perhaps, a bit heavy handed but I’m willing to give Milan a pass on heavy handedness in return for puncturing the unchallenged idea that Napoleon is the Absolute Worst. Emily’s realization of this is, well–read it for yourself:
“You’re being ridiculous. He was bent on conquering the entire European continent, never mind the cost in…in…”
She swallowed, as her mind raced to a conclusion ahead of her.
“Oh,” she said in mute horror.
He didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Oh,” she repeated, setting a hand over her belly. For a few moments he said nothing at all.
Ultimately, Emily’s illicit excursions are discovered by her uncle and he puts a stop to them–and, in the process, sends Jane to the north to live with her aunt. At this point, Jane realizes that she does have some small power over her uncle and she leverages it in such a way that she is allowed to continue communicating with her sister. And then, when it becomes clear that Titus is going to have Emily committed, she saves herself: she escapes and goes to Anjan in London where they solidify their relationship and she is made aware, by his mother, that he is from a family of consequence himself and that she must prove herself worthy of him–I thought this was a really nice touch and it made me happy that Emily rescues herself from her uncle and that Jane is able to realize that, too.
The happy resolution of Emily and Anjan’s relationship is, perhaps, a bit pat but I have to say that I did enjoy the way that Anjan used Titus’s own prejudices to gain his acquiescence to marriage with Emily.
There is just so much going on in this book and it’s impossible to talk about all of the plots at the same time!
Jane is so, so aware of the delicate position she’s in–she has to walk a very fine line in order to maintain her charade publicly while not giving the game away to her uncle. After she befriends Oliver, she also befriends two women she kept close to her because they unerringly steered her wrong in terms of fashion–it turns out that they had good reasons for wanting to associate with Jane and they three turn a brittle faux friendship into one that is real and nourishing (unfortunately, it takes a terrifying encounter between Jane and Bradenton in a greenhouse to cause this to happen).
Something else about Jane: she’s fat. And it goes almost completely unremarked upon in the text. There’s a mention at the beginning that her waist is larger than is fashionable (uncorseted, her waist is 37″–this puts her in a 2x in some modern sizes and possibly larger depending on how much larger than her waist her breasts/hips are). Oliver appreciates her ample flesh (in a non-creepy and non-fetishistic way) but other than that, the text lets her body pass unmarked. I don’t even know if I can convey how rare this is–there are so few fat people in romance and they are usually used as moral or object lessons. The fact that Jane is fat and is not shamed for it is astonishing.
In the face of the awesome that is Jane and Emily and Anjan, Oliver feels a bit like a cipher in some ways. He’s almost pure distilled ambition and while he comes to appreciate and care for Jane, he’s still willing to betray her to get what he wants until Jane comes up with a way to turn the tables on Bradenton–I was glad to see the betrayal plot over and done with fairly early on in the book, as that sort of thing hits my personal embarrassment squick pretty hard.
I enjoyed Oliver’s scenes with his father–they felt, to me, very much like Miles Vorkosigan’s scenes with his father in A Civil Campaign and with Simon Illyan in Memory. There’s something about the way Hugo Marshall lets Oliver make his way to the answers to his questions that feels Bujoldian, for lack of a better description.
And then there’s the bit where Oliver and Jane escape on horseback after a false elopement doesn’t go quite as expected–and the horseback ride is about as uncomfortable as one would imagine it and both Jane and Oliver are pretty open about how awful it is due to Oliver not having “pillowy thighs”. This is another case of Milan poking fun at a commonly deployed trope–how many books out there feature the main characters having hot sex on horseback? Way too many. And this horseback scene also features a torrential downpour and a pit stop in an inn where Oliver wants to preserve Jane’s virtue and she is having none of that–she straight up arranges to share a room with him and then she asserts her worth in this utterly marvelous line: ”‘I’m not a gift,’ she said. ‘Or a prize that you’ve won. I’m a woman, and I want you because it will give me joy.’” Jane utterly and completely owns herself in this moment and it’s fantastic.
There is just so much great intersectionality in this book–there’s extending the franchise to men juxtaposed with women demanding the right to vote. There’s Anjan suffering through being called “John Batty” by his classmates and co-workers because Anjan Bhattacharya is too “hard” to pronounce. There’s Emily’s mistreatment at the hands of any number of so-called medical professionals and Titus’s privileged complacency and inability to deal with a woman standing up to him. There’s Aunt Freddy and Free and the bequest that made me cry openly because oh, Aunt Freddy.
And finally there’s Jane and Oliver, two people who are so much alike in some very fundamental ways but who have chosen two different paths to the same destination:
Sometimes, Oliver thought that society was like an infant trying to shove a square, colored block through a round hole. When it didn’t go, the child pounded harder. Oliver had been shoved through round holes so often that he’d scarcely even noticed that his edges had become rounded. But Jane…Jane persisted in being angular and square. The harder she was pushed, the more square—and the more colorful—she became.
Milan is writing books that are full of real people and all their complexity–I never get the sense that anyone is there merely as a plot device, they all have their stories even if we don’t know the details. By the time Oliver and Jane realize that even if they are impossible for each other, they are also impossible without each other. And they are also impossible without the wider world they move within, too–every single person in this book, from Emily and Anjan to Bradenton and Titus, is absolutely integral to making Jane and Oliver who they are. They don’t live in a pink bubble, they live in a world of complexity and intersectionality–just like you and I do.
My only complaint about the book is this: Why isn’t the girl on the cover in a fuchsine dress?