When the Duke of Lennox meets the Bawdy Bluestocking in 1830s London, it is appropriate that they are both wearing masks, for they are both far more than their immediate circumstances would suggest.
"A Man Above Reproach" is a Regency Romance, the first novel by local writer Evelyn Price. It is about two people finding love, but like the characters, there is more to this story than its genre may suggest.
Both Lennox and the Bluestocking are attempting to find a genuine identity in a world where their roles are prescribed for them, by their gender and by their relative stations in society. The metaphorical masks they are forced to wear to meet the expectations of others obscure their true being, from themselves and each other, more than the elaborate costume masks ever can.
Montlake Romance ($14.95).
Elias Addison, the Duke of Lennox, is the heir to his late father's estate. He has inherited debts and headaches, as well as the increased pressure to marry and propagate his family line. He is well past the age when men of his station have married and has earned the nickname of "The Uncatchable" from the young society ladies who are paraded before him as potential wives.
He finds most of them unworthy of his interest, believing them to be simple and without depth of character. He cannot see that they are wearing the facade of society as well.
To Ms. Pryce's credit, this misconception on his part is addressed and we see that these women are more than mere set-dressing. Lennox wants a wife who is his equal, in intelligence and spirit. His own role prevents him from seeing past the role others are forced to play.
If Lennox is buried beneath layers of masks, Josephine Grant is even more so. As the Bawdy Bluestocking, she is a pianist at a high-class house of ill repute. While not a prostitute, she plays there to supplement her income. During the day she owns a bookstore where she employs some of the other girls from the house in an effort to help them escape the life they have found themselves in.
She writes treatises on the roles of women in her society. She is a progressive and a feminist in a world where these ideas simply don't exist. As the story progresses, Lennox and the reader discover that there is an even deeper secret buried in her past.
The two find each other exasperating, but the sparks between them are undeniable. He is arrogant and entitled. She is simply not what a woman is expected to be. Both of them are rebelling against the roles they have been forced into, yet are unable to get past their own prejudices to see the reality of the other.
Even the most secondary characters are written with depth. Each rises above cliches to reveal real people beneath the layers of societal and literary expectation.
The concept of masks extends beyond the pages of the novel. Evelyn Pryce is the pen name of Kristin Ross, a native of Glassport, Pa., and an employee of Chatham University.
Ms. Ross won the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in the category of Romance. 10,000 novels were submitted in five categories. There were several rounds of elimination spread over the course of six months.
"That was nerve-wracking," Ms. Ross says with an audible sigh of relief. Last May she found out that she had won the Romance category. The result was publication of "A Man Above Reproach" and a sizable advance, with options for further novels.
The book came out in October, but Ms. Ross is already at work on her next book. Like any author, elements of her novel echo her real life. In this case, like Lennox and the Bluestocking, Ms. Ross has also found her true identity; that of an author.
Wayne Wise is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.wayne-wise.com.