Awake Unto Me by Kathleen Knowles
January 17, 2012
Jill Sorenson is back with another guest review!
Bold Strokes Books is a publishing company known for lesbian romance. They also publish other types of gay fiction and m/m. Many of their titles are available on NetGalley, and whenever I request one I get instant approval. I like that!
I also liked this book very much.
I’m a sucker for cross-dressing heroines in m/f historical romances, so I find this kind of character easy to relate to in lesbian romance. I say that because I think some straight readers assume a lesbian romance will be strange and uncomfortable to read. What I’ve found is that, for the most part, women are women. Even while dressed in men’s clothes.
Awake Unto Me begins with Kerry, a tomboy growing up in a San Francisco whorehouse, circa 1890. The historical details are nicely done but don’t overwhelm the story. Kerry’s father is a conman who lures sailors into indentured servitude. Her mother is dead. She’s had a hard-knock life. She begins working for her father at a young age, and quickly discovers that she’s more comfortable in men’s clothing. As a teenager, she’s seduced by one of the prostitutes. Kerry doesn’t want to be a man, but she likes wearing pants and sleeping with pretty ladies.
Beth, the second heroine, also has a rocky start. She’s the only daughter of a reserved, upper-class couple. Her parents take her to a local priest for religious studies. The man makes sexual advances she doesn’t understand, because she’s a child. When the abuse gets worse, she summons the nerve to tell her parents. They refuse to listen and force her to continue the lessons.
The scenes with young Beth are heartbreaking. I want to make it clear that the author is in no way suggesting that the sexual abuse changed Beth’s orientation. Beth has an innocent crush on one of her female classmates before the lessons begin. The pedophile doesn’t turn her into a lesbian—she was born that way.
Okay, so you probably know where this story is going. Beth and Kerry grow up, get together, have healing sexytimes, and live happy ever after! Well, you’re right, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Awake Unto Me is like a lesbian Danielle Steele saga, with many chapters devoted to each heroine’s life before they meet, and long separations after.
Kerry’s father befriends a medical student who pays for his university fees by gambling. This student agrees to take care of Kerry, should her father die. Of course, he does. Kerry joins the doctor’s family and takes a job washing dishes at a fancy restaurant. Her dream is to become a top chef, but this career option is only open to men.
Dr. Grant’s wife, Laura, hates Kerry’s boyish looks, unnatural tastes, and tawdry upbringing. My main criticism of the story is that Laure is a one-dimensional shrew. Perhaps because the other characterizations are well-drawn, this one pales in comparison.
Meanwhile, Beth escapes her horrible family situation by going away to school. She’s interested in medicine and works hard to become a nurse. The labor is grueling and the author doesn’t shy away from gritty historical details. Beth ends up at the same hospital as Kerry’s guardian, Dr. Grant. The two women meet and begin an unusual friendship.
Although Kerry knows women can be together sexually, Beth does not. They take walks in the park and enjoy each other’s company in a platonic fashion. Kerry has no idea how to deal with her desire for Beth. She assumes Beth doesn’t return her affection.
Beth travels to the Philippines to provide medical care for American war soldiers. While she’s there, she eavesdrops on two nurses who kiss and proclaim their romantic love for each other. She has an epiphany—she wants Kerry the same way.
Even after Beth returns, she’s reluctant to share her new realization with Kerry. In this time period, there are no women in open relationships. The word lesbian isn’t used. Neither heroine has any concept of being gay. What they do know is that even if they accept each other, society will not accept them.
Beth and Kerry finally admit their feelings to each other, but the road to happiness isn’t smooth. Beth has issues with intimacy, stemming from her abuse. They both struggle for acceptance in male-dominated professions. They grow as individuals, as well as a couple.
I really enjoyed the focus on character development, the painstaking historical details, and the slow romantic buildup in Awake Unto Me. This debut novel is well-crafted and manages to avoid lesbian romance clichés. Kerry is more masculine, but Beth is no shrinking violet. She’s taller than Kerry, and she wants to be a doctor. They’re both strong women.
Some paragraphs read like a laundry list (Kerry went here, did that, and finished this), but the emotions felt real and the story gripped me from start to finish. The sex scenes are brief and non-explicit. This is a sweet historical romance that stays true to a unique setting and interesting time period.