Martha Waters: To Love and to Loathe [Atria Books; April 6]

First comes love, then comes loathing. Or, wait—was it the other way around?

In To Love and to Loathe, a new novel from the writer Martha Waters, years of simmering tension between two members of British high society—the witty, widowed Lady Templeton and the edgy, ungettable Marquess of Willingham—form the basis for a will-they-or-won’t they regency romp.

If you’re looking for light, good-natured historical fiction— à la Emily Griffin, set 200 years ago—then Martha Waters may be your writer.

The 342-page novel is the second in Waters’ Regency Vows series. A Chapel Hill children’s librarian, Waters first sat down to write a novel in November 2018, during a sprint-to-the-finish writing challenge called NaNoWriMo (Participating writers commit to writing 1,667 words per day.)

The fruit of her labors, To Have and to Hoax, was picked up by Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books with a publication date of early April 2020.

“Those of us with early pandemic releases got hammered by it,” Waters laughs, ruefully, one year later over Zoom. Her cat, Puffin, pokes his head into the camera frame as she recounts the FlyLeaf book launch that never was (she ended up doing a release via Instagram Live).

Still, the book managed to make a splash. Entertainment Weekly described it as a “dizzy situational comedy” with an “abundance of heart,” and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, writing that Waters “gently lampoons genre tropes without sacrificing genuine feeling.”

A year later, Waters is celebrating her second pandemic-era release. A native of Florida and graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, Waters says she’s always had a thing for history, writing, screwball rom-coms, and England. But it wasn’t until she was studying library science at UNC that she picked up a historical romance novel by Julia Quinn—author of the buzzy Bridgerton novels—that things fell into place.

“It was the first time I’d ever read a historical romance novel being published contemporarily,” she says. “Once I started reading the genre, I did this total 180 from wanting to write fantasy for children and teenagers, to wanting to write romance for adults—and, I like regency as a sub-genre.”

Once you start looking, it’s a time-hopping sub-genre that’s less obscure than you might think. Jane Austen novels have proved inexhaustible for both screen and novel adaptations, from Clueless and Bride and Prejudice to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, proving that the “rivals-to-romance” plot has enduring appeal.

And Waters isn’t the only one who fell in love with Julia Quinn’s period writing: when Bridgerton, a Shondaland production, hit Netflix in January, it broke records and was reportedly streamed by 82 million households around the world. It’s a modern-feeling watch, bingeable and breezy, with a multi-racial cast, pops of color (think a ballroom string arrangement of “Thank U, Next”), and a lot of sex.

Readers seeking more sex will find plenty in To Love and to Loathe. The novel follows a conventional romantic arc with its main characters exchanging barbs right off the bat (a lot of “reproving” and “withering” looks are exchanged), but when a wager enters the equation, and the Marquess of Willingham propositions Lady Templeton with a no-strings-attached affair to educate him on how to be a better lover, things take a turn.

Clothes come off—and frankly, some pretty hot feminist tutorials happen from there.

This isn’t really much of a spoiler: It’s fairly implicit that these characters will find their way past the bantering and bedding and into love. More than plot twists or big reveals, Waters seems most interested in sparkly, immersive storytelling that turns the tables on what we normally get from historical romance fiction.

“I like adopting a somewhat historical tone for them, but I’m fully aware that these are modern-feeling characters,” Waters says. “I want them to be characters that a modern reader can relate to.”

Historical fiction, she adds, often says more about the time during which it was written than in the time during which it was set. Such is the case for Bridgerton, as it was with Sofia Coppola’s frothy converses-and-countesses drama, Marie Antionette, in 2006, and, more recently, the Apple TV+ runaway hit, Dickinson, about the poet. Cast against the sexy gloss of prestige television, Emily Dickinson’s poems speaks across time.

To Love and to Loathe plays into this new anachronistic feminist fantasy, with a heroine who doesn’t shirk from her sexuality, even as she learns to lean into her own longing for love and trust. That’s still a pretty subversive proposition: when it debuted in 1998, the freewheeling sexual mores of Sex & the City’s Samantha Jones were pretty radical, and that was just some 20 years ago.

To Love and to Loathe may represent a fantasy, but it still feels exciting to read about a heroine telling a man how it’s done, two centuries ago, and to see a marriage plot stake out daring new ground.

“I wrote characters that felt right to me,” Waters says. “And the thing is, I don’t want to write a romance hero who actually behaves the way a man in 1817 would. No thanks—he’d be a misogynistic jerk!

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