They say that behind every great man is a great woman. What they never say is what exactly she’s doing there, and why she felt she couldn’t step out front and be great, all on her own. These two books—set in different locales, in different eras, and focusing on entirely different issues—answer that question. Why is she there? Because she was put there, and told it was her place.
And the next question: Will she stay there? In these books, absolutely not.
An Heiress to Remember
It’s 1879 in Gilded Age New York when Beatrice Goodwin, the titular heiress of Maya Rodale’s beautifully empowering An Heiress to Remember, makes the safe, conventional choice to marry a fortune-hunting duke rather than her penniless Irish-immigrant sweetheart. Sixteen years later, scandalously divorced, she returns home and is horrified to discover that her wastrel brother has run the family’s landmark department store straight into the ground. If she doesn’t act quickly, it’ll be sold to Wes Dalton, owner of the hugely successful operation across the street . . . and Beatrice’s former sweetheart. He’s spent 16 years clawing his way up the ladder, eager to get his revenge on those who saw him as less. Buying and destroying Goodwin’s would be final feather in his cap—but it’s a victory Beatrice won’t allow. Rallying support from the Ladies of Liberty, a group of women dedicated to promoting the professional advancement of women, she seizes control of the store and turns its fortunes around. Faced with real, powerful competition, Wes is forced to grapple with whether it’s truly revenge that he wants, or Beatrice.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Maya Rodale on the appeal of the Gilded Age romance.
In a less ambitious book, that would be the whole journey: Wes would realize he actually wants Beatrice after all, and would declare his love. Beatrice would tearfully fall into his arms, happy to be with the only man she has ever loved. Cue wedding bells, and happily ever after. That would be a perfectly nice romance. But this is not that story. Wes has a much more complex and compelling obstacle ahead of him than simply removing his head from his nether regions, because after a decade and a half of turning himself into New York’s most eligible man—a prince of industry who matches and exceeds Beatrice’s duke husband on every score—he comes to discover that Beatrice is not looking for the right man to come along and make her happy. She’s looking to dictate her own happiness. To stand up for what she wants, and to create a space where other women can do the same. She chooses empowerment and independence, and those are rivals for her hand and her heart that make even Wes pale in comparison. Winning her doesn’t mean sweeping her off her feet and setting her up in a castle. She had one of those already, and she hated it. Winning her means accepting her as she is, and finding a way to let her choose love and choose to continue living her life on her own terms.
If I Never Met You
Meanwhile, Mhairi McFarlane’s Laurie Watkinson thought she’d made all the right choices. She was living exactly the life she wanted as a successful lawyer in an important Manchester firm and in a dedicated, long-term relationship. Then her life falls apart when her boyfriend Dan walks out on her. Worse? He (suspiciously, immediately) has a new girlfriend. Even worse? That new girlfriend is (suspiciously, immediately) pregnant. Worst of all? Laurie and Dan work at the same firm, which means she has the fun of being the center of gossip and the object of pity while trying to hold her broken heart together. At her lowest point, the office playboy—gorgeous, ambitious Jamie Carter—offers her a deal. He needs a “respectable” girlfriend to impress the senior partners. She needs to give Dan a wakeup call, and get some confidence back. A fake relationship between the two of them would be a win/win…right?
McFarlane wrote one of my favorite books of 2019—Don’t You Forget About Me—so I was expecting another deeply funny, deeply emotional, deeply engaging story, and that’s exactly what I got. What I wasn’t expecting was how hard If I Never Met You would be to read. If you or someone you love has had their trust betrayed by a long-term partner and is now struggling to regain their self-worth, figure out what went wrong, fend off creepy men looking to exploit the emotionally shaken and plot out a path forward, then it’s going to be tough for you to get through the first hundred pages. McFarlane is astonishingly clear-eyed in all of her writing and even the most rom-com of plots (the characters make references to When Harry Met Sally, but I kept thinking of another Meg Ryan film—French Kiss) are deployed with an emotional honesty that cuts no one any slack. Every revelation and insight in the story feels earned, including heartbreaking moments where Laurie recalls a childhood sexual aggression or when Jamie struggles with self-blame over his brother’s death years before.
This book isn’t easy. But it’s so, so worth it. Laurie’s journey is devastating and honest, which is precisely what makes it so empowering when she moves past her heartbreak and opens her eyes to things she hadn’t allowed herself to see. Like the chauvinism in her workplace where some colleagues—including Dan—think they have the right to determine her romantic future. Like her group of “couple” friends who defined her by her connection to Dan. Like Dan himself, who used her in ways so subtle that it takes a lot of hindsight before she can even see it. The book is a romance, so it’s no surprise that Laurie falls in love with Jamie. But the more powerful transition is her removing her blinders, fully understanding her world and her relationships, and making some hard choices to decide for herself what comes next. That includes the choice to open her heart to Jamie, who would never push her into the background and who wants nothing more than to stand by her side.
What’s a woman’s place? For Beatrice and Laurie—and me, and every single one of you—it’s anywhere she damn well chooses to be.