We’ve asked a few Romance Writers of America RITA winners and nominees to discuss their favorite winners from past RITA awards. The first in the series is Courtney Milan, who was nominated for her novella “This Wicked Gift” in the Heart of Christmas anthology.
Here’s the backstory:
In 1999, when Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy won the RITA for Best Long Historical Romance, we were just discovering the internet, meaning that we were all bidding in online auctions, thinking dot-coms were the businesses of the future, and worrying that Y2K would bring the Apocalypse. The Phantom Menace wouldn’t open until mid-1999—so we didn’t yet realize how much the ’prequels’ stunk, and we were spending our time listening to Limp Bizkit and Eminem.
My Dearest Enemy is one of my favorite books by Connie Brockway—and as she is one of those authors who can really hit one out of the park, that is saying a great deal.
I adore Lily, the heroine. She was raised by an unconventional suffragette mother—so much of a nonconformist that she refused to marry Lily’s father. Lily herself speaks out in favor of women’s rights. In fact, the book starts because a relative dies and leaves her Mill House for five years, on the condition that she can make it a going concern—something that he believes no woman can do. Either she can try to make Mill House work (and, the deceased uncle thinks, fail, thus earning her comeuppance), or she can get a very nice sum to live on for the rest of her mouth—so long as she keeps her mouth shut about all that women’s rights claptrap. The heroine considers this for a few seconds, and decides to try for Mill House, with this as explanation: “She would never have been able to keep quiet anyway.” How can you not love that?
I adore Avery. Brockway’s hero is masculine, smart—but also kind of socially awkward and rude. Where many authors would have the hero adhere to more modern notions of female capability, Avery is very much a Victorian-era British man—pigheaded and prejudiced against what women can do. That being said, you love him almost because of his protective, kind, and—yes—sometimes very condescending attitudes. Because while he may be patronizing in principle, in the particulars, you can see that he cares for Lily very much.
I love the setup. Avery was promised Mill House as a child; if Lily fails, he’ll get it. But he has no intention of twiddling his thumbs in England, waiting to see if she’ll fail. Instead, he sets off to explore the world. And so Lily and Avery grow to know one another through letters—letters that on their surface are full of cutting, acerbic, hilarious remarks, but which soon begin to show both respect and care. By the time Avery returns to England, it’s clear to everyone around them that they’re half in love with each other, and yet still desperately at odds on everything that matters.
That setup gives the entire book a sweet sense of desperation—where the one person they crave is the only one they can’t have. And that brings me to the final thing about this book that I adore. Most romance novels have titles that are barely tied to the book, perhaps by the hero’s title. But My Dearest Enemy captures the essence of this book—a relationship so heated that it could be either love or hate.
Connie Brockway is one of my favorite authors of historical romance, and this book perfectly illustrates why I adore her.
Courtney Milan’s debut novel was published in 2010. Since then, her books have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Booklist. She’s been a RITA® finalist and an RT Reviewer’s Choice nominee for Best First Historical Romance. Her second book was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2010.
Courtney lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, a marginally-trained dog, and an attack cat.