The grooming of five young Englishwomen for the marriage market goes wildly off the rails in a debut that, although Austen-ish in outline, takes some surprisingly saucy turns.
Already a successful children’s and YA writer, British author Grant now delivers a very grown-up novel set in late-18th-century London. There, new money in the hands of four members of the merchant class is to be spent on piano lessons for their privileged girls, to help them snare husbands from among the aristocracy. Grant’s atmospheric evocation of London, seething with crime and grime, includes unexpectedly libidinous developments, especially involving Alathea Sawneyford, the dark horse among the group of daughters. The others are variously distinguished by false teeth, anorexia, disappointing hair and a problematic nose while fair Alathea’s only shortcoming is her lack of innocence. At the other end of the social and beauty scales, Annie Cantabile, the long-suffering daughter of a coldhearted musical instrument maker, is burdened by her harelip and unrequited passion for piano instructor Monsieur Belladroit, hired to tutor the debutantes and planning to deflower them all. Grant’s tale, though fresh and spirited, sags in the middle before picking up some speed for the concluding concert, where the girls take matters into their own hands.
“Girls shouldn’t be puppets,” asserts this cleverly seductive romp, which conceals, beneath its witty surface, some very dark comments on fathers and daughters.