We've been fans of Felicia Grossman's books since the beginning, but I think she's outdone herself with Marry Me by Midnight. Since the death of her father, businesswoman Isabelle's place in the family surety business is at risk. She needs to marry, but she also needs to make sure the man she gives that much control to won't steamroll her or squander her money. Fending off the advances of the Barab brothers, who own the other half of the business, she hatches a plan: she'll hold a series of balls at which she will entertain suitors from the Jewish community... and pick one by midnight at the final ball.
To himself and the community, Aaron is nothing special. After years bouncing from job to job, he's now the custodian of the synagogue at which Isabelle attends services. He's not particularly smart, has no special skills or connections. When Isabelle spies him entertaining children with stories and candies, however, she sees something truly special in him: a deep kindness and capacity for love. Unfortunately, that's not what she needs in a partner. He could be useful in her mercenary husband hunt, however, so she enlists him to help her weed out the marriage candidates. At the end, Aaron will get 200 pounds, enough to guarantee him a fresh start and the financial stability that will allow him to secure the thing he wants most in the world: a family to love.
Aaron is an absolute marshmallow who sometimes tries to pretend to be stern. It fails spectacularly. Isabelle ruthlessly suppresses all emotion in order to maintain her place in the community and in her business. Grossman flips the usual historic romance gender dynamic and allows Aaron to be his squishy, family-oriented self. All he wants is people to love. He's very clearly going to be in more of a caregiver role, which allows Isabelle to be her ambitious self. They're so perfect for each other. (Also she's big into making him beg, even when she's on her knees. It is very good.)
Of course, the couple face obstacles both internal and external and their relationship takes place in the larger context of Victorian England where Jewish success is limited or resented. Grossman adeptly handles the complexities of intra- and inter-community maneuverings and manages to convey the high stakes of Isabelle's marriage choice while also presenting a compelling and central romance. I'm not terribly well-versed in Jewish romance, but in my reading experience, Sephardic Jews are less represented than Ashkenazi Jews. The interplay of the two "sides" of the community--including language--was an added layer of complexity that really grounded the novel in time and place.
I listened to this novel thanks to Hachette Audio. Justine Eyre's narration was excellent as usual, even if I'm always mildly surprised to hear steamy scenes in her voice. I haven't been reading much historical romance recently and while at one point a couple of years ago I found myself rather tired of Justine Eyre, this time it felt like a return to a subgenre I once claimed as one of my favorites.
Marry Me by Midnight is the subversive, swoony, sexy, Jewish Cinderella retelling you've been craving.