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Bi4Bi Romance Thrives in This New Queer Regency-Era Rom-Com

“I deserve to have joy in my life,” says Emily, the protagonist of Lex Croucher’s latest queer historical rom com, Trouble. Lest you mistake Emily for the kind of woman who would declare such a thing with earnest enthusiasm, Croucher specifies that Emily says it “tonelessly” only after insistent prodding from her sister to “repeat after me.” It’s one of quite a few on-brand things that prickly, stubborn Emily says or does throughout this book that made me laugh out loud. Her journey in this novel — equal parts romance and self-discovery — is often very funny, as I’ve come to expect with Croucher’s work, but it’s also just as frequently moving.

Here’s the set-up for Emily’s story: Her kind, sweet-tempered sister Amy is supposed to take up a new position as governess at Fairmont House. (Cue all your literary associations with young women going to work as governesses in grand gothic houses as la Jane Eyre). Amy, however, is too unwell to go, and Emily is going in her stead, despite her lack of experience and distinct dislike of children. Their family desperately needs the money: Amy and Emily’s father passed away some years back leaving them with enormous gambling debts. With Amy seriously ill, unable to work, and needing the expensive care of a doctor, Emily knows what she has to do. She’s been shouldering the burden of providing for her family and taking care of her beloved sister since her father’s death and she won’t let a few little things like her unsuitability and lack of competence get in her way. She plans to fake it as a governess as long as she can, steal a few small rich people trinkets to sell to top up her wages, and hit the road before she gets caught.

When Emily as Amy arrives at Fairmont House, she is both surprised and not surprised by what she finds. What’s surprising? Her charges are hardly children at all! One, bubbly Grace intent on loving hard and desperately wanting to be loved in return, is 14, and the other, witty Aster who might just give Emily a run for her money when it comes to grumpiness, is 16. But the children’s father, Captain Edwards, is exactly what Emily expected of a rich, privileged man: brooding, taciturn bordering on rude, neglectful of his children, and unfeeling. All of her class-based assumptions are confirmed. What she doesn’t realize, of course, is that Captain Edwards’s gruff exterior — like her own — is far from an accurate indication of who he actually is. Grief, in particular, is at play, with the children’s mother and the captain’s late wife having passed away four years earlier.

Some might call Emily unlikeable. She is described as “irascible, curmudgeonly, and cantankerous” by her 14-year-old charge at Fairmont House. Emily is quick to anger, defensive as a porcupine, and completely incapable of believing she is worthy of love. She is used to simply enduring life and has never considered the possibility that there might be any room to actually desire anything. All she’s ever been able to do is what’s needed to be done. Previous to assuming her sister’s identity as a governess, she did back-breaking work in a mill. At 29, she’s long past being considered an irrevocable spinster. Croucher writes: “[Emily] had told herself she needed nothing again and again so that it didn’t hurt when her hands remained empty.” Emily’s character development throughout the book is a joy to watch. She remains pretty grumpy, despite her personal growth, because that’s just who she is! But she learns to open up, trust people, and let herself be loved.

I am firmly in the naming-a-character’s-queerness-is-not-a-spoiler camp, so I’ll tell you straight up that both Emily and Captain Edwards — let’s call him Ben from now on, as Emily learns to do — are bisexual. I was going to read this book anyway, since I’ve really enjoyed all of Lex Croucher’s other books. But when I saw them promoting the book on Instagram by calling Trouble their new “grumpy x grumpy bi 4 bi governess romcom” I ran to the copy that was sitting on my shelf and started reading immediately. Emily and Ben did not disappoint me as the bi grumpy couple of my dreams. Their constant verbal sparring, Emily’s insistence on telling Ben the harsh truth, particularly about himself, and Ben’s determination to push past Emily’s prickliness made for a very satisfying enemies-to-lovers-ish dynamic. Their romance also encapsulates Emily figuring out she’s a top, a journey I always love to see!

In addition to Emily and Ben’s shared bisexuality, the vibe of the whole house is very queer. As a newcomer to Fairmont House, Emily encounters quite a few mysteries. Why did Ben hire a valet, Oliver, who was apparently fired from his last job? What was Oliver doing when Emily spied him coaxing her oldest charge, Aster, back into the house late at night? Why was Ben dismissed from the navy? Why does Aster seem to be running for the award for surliest teen in the world? I won’t ruin the reveals by being specific, but let me tell you that it all leads back to GAY (in the most inclusive sense of the word). I laugh at the idea of a heterosexual person reading this book and trying to brainstorm non-gay reasons for all the unexplained things Emily is trying to figure out.

There is also a wonderful found family aspect to the household. (Found family, in my opinion, always feels queer). Emily’s fellow staff insist on immediately treating her like a member of their weird little tight-knit group. It is quite funny to see her bristle and fail to comprehend why they just accept her as she is and as one of their own. Emily, some people just want to be kind to you!

I said this book is equal parts romance and self-discovery, but one thing that remains the same throughout for Emily is her devotion to her sister Amy. I’d argue that Emily and Amy’s love story is just as integral to the novel as Emily and Ben’s, even if it gets less page time. The first thing Emily says when she finally seriously considers Ben’s marriage proposal is that they need to live close to her sister. Supporting Amy, who will likely have to deal with the repercussions of her lengthy illness for the rest of her life, is always going to be Emily’s top priority. See, Emily pretends to be all spiky, but she’s actually a big softie who would do anything for her sister.

Amy serves not only as a foil for Emily, but as a mirror for Grace, who also lives with the after effects of a serious illness. With both characters, Croucher achieves a thoughtful and nuanced portrayal of chronic illness that foregrounds the women as unique people not defined by their illnesses. And while I’m on the subject of representation, it was great to see a South Asian character — Mira, competent, practical, and kind housekeeper — and a Black character — Akia, who steals every scene she’s in with her hilarious outlandish stories — in a novel set in Regency England. This is historically accurate, and I will die on this hill!

For a delightfully queer historical romcom with equal parts humor and pathos and a delicate blend of romance and character growth, you really can’t do any better than Lex Croucher’s Trouble. Once you’ve read and loved it like I did, sit yourself down and say, a la Emily, “I deserve to have joy in my life.” Then, try to make sure you believe it, as Emily finally does.

Trouble by Lex Croucher is out now.

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Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer, librarian, and new parent. She writes for Book Riot and Autostraddle about queer and/or bookish stuff. Ask her about cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer books, drinking tea, and her baby. Her website is Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter, Litsy, Storygraph Goodreads and Instagram.

Casey has written 125 articles for us.

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