Learned by Heart

Although Irish Canadian author Emma Donoghue (HavenThe WonderFrog Music) tends to bounce between the past and contemporary settings, she has a winning streak of historical fiction. In Learned by Heart, her immersive, sprightly, and sensual novel about the risks of forming bonds across societal divides, she takes inspiration from the true story of how diarist Anne Lister (the subject of the HBO series Gentleman Jack) met her first love, Eliza Raine. Lister and Raine, as they refer to each other, are 14-year-old roommates at a boarding school in York, England, in 1805. They may seem like opposites--Raine, a timid biracial girl with a sizable inheritance; Lister, a boisterous trouble-maker whose parents can barely afford tuition--but "[k]indred sympathy grows between them like a flowering weed" nonetheless. Soon, they are best friends and then lovers. They even secretly exchange vows in a church, Raine thereafter calling Lister "husband." But as letters dated 1815--interspersed throughout the story--from a heartbroken Raine testify, mental illness and other partners intrude. This idyllic relationship wasn't to last.

Lively present-tense narration and copious period detail (the Napoleonic Wars, newspaper rental, smallpox vaccinations, a magic-lantern show, faux side curls attached to a headband) make this feel authentic yet evergreen. Raine's perspective gives readers a winsome sideways look at Lister, who is forever earning "disputatiousness marks," and exhibiting unladylike behavior. "Perhaps I'm the connecting link between the sexes," she muses. The characters' delight in language makes for playful prose full of euphemisms, Latin phrases, and French proverbs. And in the center of it all is a tender record of groundbreaking young passion. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

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