When I first heard about Maid To Match by Deeanne Gist all the way back in December 2009, I knew I was going to have to read it. Inspirational or no, I've literally been waiting for this book my whole historical romance reading loving life. A romance between a lady's maid and footman? Seriously, how can I not read this? And while it didn't quite live up to the immense hype I managed to conjure in my wee lil' librarian brain, it was still a very solid read, and one of the more memorable historicals I've run up against this year.
At 18, Tillie Reese has learned she is in the running to become Mrs. Vanderbilt's new lady's maid. Currently head parlormaid, getting promoted to lady's maid would be a huge honkin' deal. Only the housekeeper is higher in rank among the female staff, and the lady's maid gets to bathe whenever she darn well pleases, gets to read books aloud to Mrs. Vanderbilt, gets to dress in the same incredible fashions, and she'll get to travel with the Vanderbilts! It's what she, and her mother, have been working towards the past 18 years and it's almost within Tillie's grasp. However there's another girl in the running for the position, so Tillie has her work cut out for her. She cannot afford any distractions or any slip-ups. And that's when Mack Danvers shows up.
Mack's twin bother Earl already works up the Biltmore estate for the Vanderbilts as a footman. With both of their parents now gone, the boys have had to split up their family - farming the younger boys out to neighbors in their mountain community and putting the youngest girl in the local orphanage. When he finds out that the supposedly fine, upstanding head of the orphanage is beating the girls, he's determined to get his sister out of there. But for that he needs money, a lot more than he's making in his current job, and Earl's playboy ways means he's no help whatsoever. Then, in an amazing turn of events, he's offered a job at the Biltmore as the new useful man. He's loathe to take it, but dang, the Vanderbilts pay very well. More money means he can reunite the family that much sooner.
Of course, this throws a wrench into Tillie's ambitions. Naturally Mrs. Vanderbilt doesn't want Mack to be a useful man forever. He's just as handsome as his twin brother, and just think? Identical twin footmen! She'll be the envy of...well...every lady capable of breath. But Mack has spent his whole life in the mountains. He tends to speak freely and readily use his fists when someone crosses him the wrong way. It's up to Tillie to mold him into a proper servant, and getting her head turned by him is not an option. Getting tangled up with the fellow servant would lead to immediate dismissal and her dreams would go up in smoke.
Mack is this great mix of Alpha and Beta hero. Certainly he's rough around the edges, and uses his fists, but it's always to protect those in need. Women and children mostly. Because while many men from the mountain aren't big on equal rights, his father raised the boys to respect women. Period. So when Mack sees injustice, he tends to hit first and ask questions later. He's also immediately smitten with Tillie, and desperate to catch her favor. He knows she's also attracted to him, but he can't understand why she's so determined to give up her entire youth, a chance to marry and have children of her own, to serve some rich lady.
Tillie takes immense pride in her work, and sees the chance at being the new lady's maid as her ticket to a better life. Yes, she'll have to give up marriage and children. And yes, she'll be thrown over for some new young thang once she reaches a certain age. But, lady's maids are paid very, very well. It's money that can be used to help out her parents and further her own philanthropic endeavors. Plus, Mrs. Vanderbilt does a lot of good in the community. As a lady's maid, she could be part of that. The problem is, the more time she spends with Mack, the more she begins to question her dream. Is being a lady's maid really what she wants?
The author delivers a wonderful sense of place, utilizing the immense backdrop of the Biltmore to set her story. She also manages to portray the most realistic depiction of servants I've ever read in a romance novel. Granted, that's probably not saying much, since the historical accuracy of "the staff" in historical romances has always been laughable, at best. She gets the feel of "below stairs" just right. The gossip. The hierarchy. The demands. All of it. And to top it off we get an author's note at the end, explaining...well...a lot (FYI - American servant class = different from British servant class).
Given that this is an inspirational, "God stuff" should be expected. It's actually light to non-existent for the first half of the story. It becomes more prevalent in the latter half, as Tillie wrestles with the notion of what she really wants out of her life. The romance here is solid, but I actually wished it had been developed a bit more thoroughly. The attraction between Mack and Tillie is quite obvious. What isn't so obvious is them "falling in love." I wanted a lot more "how and why" and instead it just sort of "happens."
I also was a wee bit taken aback by a dark moment that occurs in the latter portion of this story. Not that the first half was light and fluffy, but just that it had the definite feel of "upstairs/downstairs" with the drama of dealing with visiting, and demanding, house guests. Certainly I enjoy "gritty" moments in my romances, welcome them in fact, but there's a development during the climatic final chapters that literally made me sit up, take notice, and wonder "what the?!?!?!" Was it realistic? Sadly, yes. Was it shocking? Way yes. It certainly does the job of moving the story through the concluding chapters, but I can't help but feel like I was blindsided with a sledge-hammer. Now obviously, the story ends the way all historical romances should end (yes, happy ending), but that doesn't make that moment any less shocking, any less troubling, or, most importantly, any less upsetting.
I loved the backdrop of the Biltmore Estate and the North Carolina mountains. I loved the careful historical research detailing the lives of the servants. I loved that while the Vanderbilts played decent-sized supporting roles, that this story was really about those people who served them. It's a strong, solid historical romance. If you're an inspirational fan, you need to plan on reading this book. Like, now. And for those of you desperate for the kind of story that secular publishers of historical romance seem determined to never give us? I didn't think it was great, but that doesn't make it any less good.
Final Grade = B