Like most of the reviewers of this novel below, I found this a delightful, charming book, a rewarding debut. Unlike some of the other reviewers I am not a great devourer of Romance novels. I am, however, a great devourer of historical fiction, namely of literary historical fiction, and I especially favor books about strong-willed women who, often through cross-dressing, manage to outwit and challege their contemporary society's rules. Some of these books include Patricia Duncker's confoundingly beautiful novel "The Doctor," and all three Victorian-Gothic novels by Sarah Waters.
But the true reason I loved this novel was not only because, as I said before, it has a heroine who is not afraid to brook social customs and rewrite her past through dressing and living as a man. The true reason I loved this novel is because it artfully plays with two literary conventions-- the Romance novel convention, and the late 18th, early 19th century novel of manners (perhaps Jane Austen is best known for these, but certainly the canon ought to include two earlier works by women, Charlotte Lenox's delightful and satirical "Female Quixote," and Elizabeth Inchbald's bitingly clever "A Simple Story"). Rosenthal's novel makes gentle nods to Austen numerous times, but it is in the series of misunderstandings and the emotional rapport that the brilliance of her writing illuminates her project.
Phoebe/Phizz and David, the heroine and hero, both lead lives that are lacking in one way or another. By becoming "Phizz" Marston, Phoebe shuts out any capacity for love and vulnerable emotions from her life. By assuming that women want only a strong (patriarchal, hegemonic) man to rescue them and marry them, David is handicapped with misogynism. Some readers below might find it difficult to believe that a Regency hero could be considered chauvinistic, or a Regency heroine who dresses as a man be realistic for the period (perhaps this reader is not familiar with the well known literary genre of cross-dressing women in 19th century lit-- Gautier's Mlle du Maupin, for instance, or George Sand herself), but in fact feminism had already begun to make its mark on English culture-- Mary Wollestonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" had already gone through several printings, and her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley was making a name for herself as a novelist with "Valperga" and "Frankenstein." So yes, it is understandable that Phoebe would want more equality for women. What makes this novel such a delightful read is that its author is thoroughly aware that the dynamic of a romance/comedy of manners involves the education of both hero and heroine-- Elizabeth Bennett needs to learn that Darcy is a good person, and Darcy needs to learn to act more kindly to her. etc. etc. Likewise, Phoebe/"Phizz" needs to learn to allow love and uncertainty into her heart, and David needs to learn not to be so sexist. The sentimental education in this novel is both David teaching Phoebe to love, and Phoebe teaching David to respect women on their own terms. I found this both refreshing and believable.
I loved this book because it took great risks with the novel of manners and Romance novel conventions, but nevertheless managed to treat its readers gently. Somehow, perhaps because of the narrator's older, experienced and somewhat wry tone (channelling Austen, perhaps?), I knew that nothing horrible was going to happen to the characters, and that depiste the dangers they faced, everyone would end up happy in the end. But I still kept turning the pages, because I wanted to find out exactly *how* the characters did end up, because I developed a genuine affection for the characters. I loved that both Phoebe and David recognized the brilliance of the poet and printer William Blake long before any of his contemporaries did (that's the fun thing about historical fiction-- you can rewrite history!), and I felt like Phoebe's laconic but precocious son reminded me of other kids I knew, wise beyond their years, and especially so from adults' perspectives.
The only thing I missed was the frisson produced by cross-dressing. Why did Shakespearean audiences lie to see boys dressed as girls pretending to be boys? Because of the excitement of not knowing which was which. When David thinks he is falling for a boy for the first time (which *is* believable, and has been for time immemorial!), he struggles with his confusion, and is relieved to find out Phoebe is indeed a girl. Perhaps there are too many conservative, homophobic Romance readers out there who wouldn't appreciate erotic variety, but I know I would have liked to read more about David's assumed homosexual attraction-- maybe a David/Phizz kiss (rather than David/Phoebe) would have made this book even more exciting.
Can't wait for "The Bookseller's Daughter"!