The Perfect Rake
by Anne Gracie, historical (2005)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 0-425-20395-6


Berkley must have a healthy amount of confidence to put Anne Gracie's books at $7.99 when she hasn't proven herself, sales-wise, to be on the league of a typical $7.99 author. Maybe she has the same agent with Julia Ross? The Perfect Rake is a typical "Virtue Makes The World Go Round" story where the heroine mires herself in unpleasant dilemmas because she can't trust the fact that the hero loves her and also because she has made promises to someone else and she will never break promises, yadda yadda yadda. If you are now throwing aside that Mary Balogh book you've read nearly to tatters to jump up and down in excitement, hey, don't hold yourself back. Go get this book today!

The Perfect Rake is a very uneven book. There are some rare scenes where the heroine Prudence nearly comes off as a human being and not a textbook case of "virtuous" basket case but on the whole, the author story veers erratically from an overly-melodramatic start to a comedic middle before plunging back into melodrama. The manipulative start of the story has our heroines the Merridew sisters being terrorized by an evil grandfather for reasons that the late VC Andrews will be proud of. The sisters flee to London after this grandfather hurts himself in a fall. No, the sisters didn't push him down the stairs. These are Virtuous Romance Heroines - they are not that smart. The sisters seek sanctuary with their Uncle Oswald. True to Virtuous Romance Heroines style, these sisters decide that the only honest way they can find happiness for themselves is by having the pretty sister, Charity, marry well. Since Charity is doing it for the sisters in a way that Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox will approve, that makes her a selfless woman so my heart, which has started beating fast in horror at the possibility of Charity even wanting money for herself, finally calms down.

Uncle Oswald, guided by the gods of contrivance, however insists that the eldest sister Prudence - also known as The Plain One - marry first, as kind Uncle Oswald is afraid that Prudence's prettier sisters will overshadow her and she will never get married. (I have this feeling that Uncle Oswald doesn't read too many historical romances.) Prudence, however, has a secret: she is engaged to Phillip, some twit who is away in India. A part of me wonders what kind of guy this Phillip must be if he can abandon the sisters to the crazy grandfather but the other part of me has this hunch that Prudence doesn't think of these things when it comes to her and Phillip. He hasn't written to her in a while now and she is still holding on to hope. I'm sure you can see where this is heading.

Because Prudence considers herself promised to Phillip, a charming man who never writes or calls or seems to care, she has to concoct a fake engagement to the Duke of Dinstable. This is where Ms Gracie decides to plunge the story from Dickensian melodrama straight into farce, when through a series of mistaken identities and slip-ups, Prudence ends up engaged to Gideon, Lord Carradice. How, you ask? After she confessed to being involved with the Duke to her uncle, she realizes that the Duke happens to be in London. Eager to warn the Duke before her Uncle shows up at the Duke's place and embarrasses all of them, she does what a romance heroine always do: runs straight to the guy's home and begs for his aid in this masquerade of hers. Needless to say, Gideon kisses her when he finds himself intrigued by this woman rushing in and talking his ears off, blah blah blah, I've read this before so many times, sigh. Gideon is besotted with Prudence but Prudence will hold on to her illusions of Phillip while telling herself that Gideon can't possibly want her.

The Perfect Rake follows too much the whole "Worthless Is What I Believe I Am, Which Is Why You Must Find Me Virtuous And Likable!" formula to a tee, which is why if Prudence suddenly dies of typhoid in this story, I'd consider it a merciful death. Girlfriend here is often too willing to make a martyr out of herself when her "simple ways" are not making her so gullible, if you ask me. She has no sense of humor that isn't related in any way to self-flagellation. I find her a tedious bore. On the other hand, Gideon is a charmer who has some of the best lines and an adorably rascally happy-go-lucky attitude that I find infectious. Ms Gracie bogs him down with some stereotypical issues but since Gideon is a hero, he is allowed to have a sense of humor and the will to make things happen so thank heavens for that. It's too bad that Ms Gracie is too confined by her own formulaic writing to allow Prudence to be the same.

My overall impression of this book is that Ms Gracie really should be a little more subtle when it comes to manipulating the reader into feeling for Prudence because it's not her past or her constant self-depreciation that will make Prudence a likable character, it's what she does with herself and how she overcomes her problems on her own. Ms Gracie's piling on of the melodramatic tortures and torments in Prudence make Prudence come off even more one-dimensional as a shallow goody-two-shoes with no depths to make her remotely human, and this melodrama clashes badly with the light-hearted courtship of Gideon and Prudence. Perhaps if Ms Gracie isn't so trapped by her own rigid adherence to the formula, if she allows Prudence to be less of a pair of one-dimensional morbid starchy underwear filled with self-depreciation and martyr tendencies, Prudence will be a character that I can see myself rooting for. As it is, this is too much of a story where Ms Gracie is determined to make Prudence as unhappy as possible, even if Prudence has to force herself to remain unhappy, so that I will be moved to shed tears for her and be glad that a man has finally come and rescued her. Or something.

Stop beating me in the head with the heroine's goodness (the way the genre defines "goodness", that is), stop with the cartoon psychotic villain, and for goodness sake, let the heroine laugh a little on her own free will or be daring enough to do something for herself, even if it means sending a few readers (and authors) into seizures of horror. Is that too much to ask? Especially for $7.99?

Rating: 70


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