by Manda Collins, historical (2012)
St Martin's Press, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-312-54925-1
I'm surprised by how much of a pleasant time I had reading Manda Collins's How To Romance A Rake, given how the author's previous effort made me sniff and recoil like Queen Victoria stumbling into an unwashed bathroom.
Juliet Shelby, to everyone else in the Ton, is a pretty girl with a bad leg. That condition marks her as defective, if you believe her haughty critics, and Juliet's horrid mother reinforces the poor girl's belief that she is not cut out for a big time love. Of course, the mother has her own reasons to push Juliet into marriage with Lord Turlington. That man, for some reason, makes Juliet's skin crawl. But that's not what she is concerned about. No, she's worried about her old music teacher Anne, who had been fired by her mother ages back for bearing a child out of wedlock. Anne and Juliet kept in touch until Anne went MIA recently.
Our hero Lord Alec Deveril is a nice guy in every way. When he discovers how many members of the Ton treat Juliet cruelly, he decides to use his social cachet to shield her from the worst, mostly by letting people know that he, at least, has no problems with Juliet in any way. As a result, Juliet and Alec grow close, and the inevitable attraction blooms. When Alec learns of Juliet's mission to locate the missing Anne, why, he will help. He is pretty handy to have around, you know, as he used to do that bang-bang-bang-die thing on the French back when that midget Napoleon Bonaparte put on airs.
Okay, the plot sounds stupid on paper, but it turns out that there is a pretty intriguing mystery in this story. I won't call it a great caper, but there is something so... Femme Fatales or Alfred Hitchcock Presents to it. The twist really appeals to the trashy cult-TV-series fan in me. However, getting to that point can be a bit dry, as our main characters generally wander all over the place questioning people or going "Hmmm!" at various clues. But's that not so bad, because the characters by themselves can be interesting enough to make up for the dryness of the proceedings.
I like Juliet. In many ways, she is a pretty realistic character. She tries to be strong and tough, but it's not easy overcoming years of low self esteem. She tries, I give her credit for that, and she actually manages to stand up very well for herself later in the story. And it's also a relief to see that she's not a complete imbecile, at least not when compared to the bird-brained twit that starred in the previous book. What I don't like, though, is the occasional scenes where she walks around in dangerous places, alone and unprotected. Such nonsense is probably necessary to get the plot moving, I guess, but surely Ms Collins can find a better way. But Juliet becomes a much better later in the story, so it's easy to forgive her for the occasional moments of daftness.
The title of this book is one of the most grossly inaccurate ones I've come across, because Alec is actually too good to be true. But in a sea of emo rakes who constantly mope about wire hangers and evil mothers, it is a nice change to see a nice and decent non-rake hero. His character also fits his designated role as Juliet's protector. I feel that he'd be a boring character under normal circumstances, but in the current state of the historical romance scene, he's interesting by virtue of being different.
Make no mistake, he does have his angst, but this angst is designed to accentuate his awesomeness. Only, there is a double standard here that doesn't get addressed. You see, Alec loathes the fact that his father and his uncle prey on women who can't fight back due to these men's position in Society, but he allows his uncle to walk around. Alec tries to stop the man from doing his thing whenever they meet, but since Alec doesn't keep tabs on that man, we have a hero who, on one hand talks about understanding the plight of women who were used and abused by men, but on the other hand, he lets one free to do whatever the man wants to do. Alec is, therefore, protecting his uncle - he is doing the very same thing he claims to be against. Oh, I know, blood is thicker than water and all that, but when the author sets Alec on a pedestal and lets this double standard fly, Alec doesn't come off too well as a result.
This double standard also extends to the plot, as, at the end of the day, what superficial issue present here serves solely as a motivation for the heroine to keep going until she gets resolution in her story. When that happens, she's free to enjoy a life of privilege with Alec, and the downtrodden can go back to the sidelines.
Oh yes, and I almost forgot to talk about the romance. Well, it's not a romance. It's more like... I don't know, a tale of two emotional sponges, I guess, as Juliet and Alec take turns analyzing each other's issues and putting on the shrink hat. They don't talk, they seem to be reciting out loud excerpts from Chicken Soup for Sad People With Mommy and Daddy Issues instead. Romantic scenes are more like the greatest hits from Oprah Winfrey; this ain't love, it's the great search for a substitute parent figure.
The issues of this story mar the believability of the story, but How To Romance A Rake is still a readable book, with the author showing that she's willing to put in some extra effort in making her characters a bit deeper than the usual stereotypes. Ms Collins also seems to have a good grasp of her characters' flaws, although her heavy-handed therapy sessions for her characters almost undid her efforts in bringing on the pathos. All in all, this is a promising effort. It's rough around the edges, but it's pretty decent, all things considered. The author and me may just be alright after all.
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