Dalliances & Devotion
by Felicia Grossman
August 26, 2019 · Carina Press
Fantasy/Fairy Tale RomanceRomanceScience Fiction/Fantasy
Vapid, vacuous, and verbose — a waste of ink.
These are the words swirling in Amalia Truitt’s head as we first meet her. It’s 1871, and Amalia is a beauty columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She thinks the scathing criticism, part of a complaint to her editor, comes from a reader, but in reality that’s the opening salvo of a larger threat.
The words also play straight into Amalia’s insecurities. In her mid-20s, Amalia already feels dismissed for her love of makeup, fashion, and “fripperies,” and feels that family and friends don’t take her seriously. It doesn’t help that she has divorced two husbands in a relatively short period of time.
Quite a few of the historical romances I’ve read seem to feature preternaturally mature young heroines, so I liked that Amalia is still feeling her way about life. She’s also unapologetic about her love of beauty tips, her hair ringlets, and her fashionable ensembles, even as she thinks these reinforce people’s perception that she’s spoiled and immature.
She definitely knows she’s privileged to be rich enough to afford her two divorces, and to have a family that supported her decisions. As a way to give back, she is turning into a behind-the-scenes philanthropist, funding a charity that helps poor women obtain divorces.
Amalia is on a train en route home to Delaware from Indiana, trying to figure out how to come clean to her parents about her charity and gain access to her share of the family fortune to fund it.
(Mid 19th-century Indiana was one of the few states with relatively lax divorce laws. This opinion piece in The New York Times, part of the newspaper’s Civil War “Desunion” project a few years back, paints divorce as one of the volatile political issues of the time, hotly debated by the same people arguing over slavery and secession.)
Dalliances and Devotion is the second book in Felicia Grossman’s The Truitts series, but it works very well as a standalone as the plot does not hinge on any of the events in the first book. And fans of books featuring next-generation heroes and heroines take note: Amalia is the youngest of the four grown children of Jay Truitt and Ursula Nunes, the main characters in Appetites and Vices, the author’s first published work.
Jay and Ursula are shown here as still very much in love and doting on grandchildren. Their marriage is strong, although they have gone through a tragedy not of their own making.
I can totally picture Jay as the “lax” parent. He’s also the one that ends up saying some pretty thoughtless things to Amalia and not helping at all with her insecurities. In a way, Jay and Amalia are similar: Sensitive late bloomers. I forgave Jay pretty quickly, though, as he is as charming as ever in this book.
David Zisskind is my first Eastern European, non native English speaker immigrant hero in historical romance. Like Amalia, he has flaws (he’s definitely not the best judge of character), but I loved that he is supportive of Amalia’s work and was eager to make up for past mistakes by the end of the book.
David, who fought in the Union Army alongside Amalia’s brothers during the Civil War, is now a Pinkerton detective, sent by one of the brothers as Amalia’s bodyguard because the threats against Amalia have escalated. His duty is to see her safely home.
Amalia is very surprised to see David, whom she last saw when they were both teenagers and very much in lust if not in love. Some five years prior, daunted by their different stations in life, the horrors of war, a family tragedy and other barriers, they both said things and acted in ways they now regret.
That sets the stage for this charming second-chance-at-love romance, with elements of a road trip and forced proximity as well. Amalia and David’s defenses crumble as the trip goes on and the threats become real attempts at her life.
It’s also on the road that David opens up Amalia about some of his family history, which is part of the reason for his lack of faith in himself. His own fear, he concludes toward the end of the book, “robbed him of quite a few people.” Trying to throw off Amalia’s attacker from their trail, they walk part of the way and stumble across the area of a major battle, triggering an episode of PTSD for David, which was wrenchingly depicted.
Years back, David had fled Grodno, then part of the Russian Empire, to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. Jewish males as young as 12 in Imperial Russia could be drafted, and conscription often meant death, as Jewish recruits were viewed as expendable, or at the very least meant enduring a decades-long service in harsh conditions. David, a studious boy, had hoped to become a rabbi, but such plans were interrupted by the conscription, which he believes to be a result of family treachery.
In America, David worked as a rag peddler for a while and ended up fighting for the Union after hearing a speech by Rabbi David Einhorn, a real-life Jewish leader who opposed slavery (and paid a price for speaking up.)
Midway through the book, David and Amalia discuss what it means to be Jewish in America, and whether Jewish people here would or should assimilate, live prescribed lives as David’s would have been in Grodno, or make their own way.
For people like me, Jews without means, America is the opportunity to own land or to live where we want for the first time. … To have a chance at some sort of equality, whether we assimilate or not
Although David knew when he emigrated that it was “no Garden of Eden” due to slavery.
There’s also a wonderful blossoming friendship between Amalia and Meg, a friend of David’s and part of the detail working to protect Amalia. These two go from open derision to mild dislike to grudging admiration to true friendship over the course of the book, as by the end no-nonsense Meg, as good friends should, is the one to tell Amalia what she needs to hear rather than what she would like to hear:
“Why is it your job when he’s the one running around refusing to listen?” She rubbed Amalia’s shoulder. “I mean, neither of you are particularly good at communicating, but he’s really a… what word does he use? Schmuck?”
Meg is in love with Will, a man of color who served in the Union Army alongside the Truitts and David during the war. Will is less developed as a character than Meg, but he also calls David out when needed.
Which brings me to my reservations about this book: I definitely wished Amalia and David had talked more and sooner about their shared past. And even after Amalia displays an extreme example of devotion, David is a bit too quick to make assumptions that turn out to be wrong (and that’s when you can’t fault Meg for calling him a schmuck.)
I consider such reservations to be minor, though, and they didn’t get in the way of enjoying this book.
David and Amalia shed preconceived notions of who they should be to embrace who they are. They discover what truly makes them happy and, to borrow from the book’s title, their relationship goes from youthful dalliance to true devotion.
Readers who enjoy seeing characters embark on literal and figurative road trips will like this book. As long as they are patient with a few detours, the journey and the destination are worth it.