by Julia London, historical (2009)
Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4165-4712-9
A Courtesan's Scandal started out most intriguingly, but the characters have reverted to being stereotypes by the last legs of the story, so the whole "fresh and different" feel sure doesn't last long where this book is concerned.
Kate Bergeron is a genuine mistress, so don't you worry about contrived virginity and what not. Truly a child of the streets, she had been left to fend for herself on the streets when she was about twelve. Whatever you can imagine will befall a beautiful young woman on the streets happened to her, and eventually she caught the eye of her employer. At first she balked at being someone's mistress, but a pragmatic female acquaintance got her to realize that Kate didn't have much choice in life - getting a comfortable life in exchange for providing sexual favors is actually not bad career move at all if you're a mere shop girl in one of the poorest areas of London.
Eventually Kate caught the eye of the Prince Regent. George managed to get her protector to hand her over to him, but because George is currently trying to divorce his wife and he has to be on his best behavior - at least in public - he can't be seen consorting with Kate. To get around this, he has Grayson Christopher, the Duke of Darlington and our hero, pretend to play Kate's paramour while he helps squire Kate around to meet George. George will expose Grayson's affair with a married woman and sabotage his brother's attempt to get an anti-slavery bill passed in Parliament if Grayson doesn't play along. As for Kate, she's never in any position to disagree with the arrangement. As you can imagine, things become very, very complicated when Kate and Grayson fall in love.
For a woman of her background, Kate comes off as strangely untouched by some of the more sordid experiences in her life. The author tells me that Kate has had a hard life, but Kate doesn't seem to be such a woman. While Ms London has it right by showing me how Kate can internalize her feelings and pretend to play the wanton as part of her "career" as a mistress, Kate at the same time is puzzlingly optimistic and even naïve. There are other aspects of Kate that I like, such as her initial determination to learn how to bake and start her own bakery with the money she has saved once her looks fade. I also love how she makes no apologies for having to sell her body to survive. I'm already seeing people complaining about this as a flaw in the heroine's morals, so if you're one of those readers, maybe Mary Balogh's new one will be a better choice for you.
However, as the story progresses, Kate turns more and more into a weepy twit. It gets really ridiculous when the formerly somewhat realistic Kate realizes that she's in love with Grayson and therefore she pulls what I call the Avon Romantic Boyfriend Test - she insists that Grayson must marry her or else. He's a Duke and she's a mistress of a merchant, so I cannot imagine what she is thinking. [spoiler starts] Then again, she's pregnant with Grayson's brat, so maybe she's just not capable of thinking clearly... and this brings me to another thing: a mistress who doesn't use birth control. Yikes! [spoiler ends]
Grayson fares better as a character because he at least remains consistently in character. He's a standard stiff-lipped proper fellow who thaws beautifully as he falls in love. Unfortunately, the author sics the Other Woman on him and... well, let's just say that should Grayson decide to cheat on Kate in the future, I know how he will treat Kate then.
The story starts out a good read, with enjoyable scenes where Kate challenges Grayson's way of thinking and quiet moments where these two laugh, argue, and slowly fall in love. But for a story which brings up the disparate social differences between Kate and Grayson when it's convenient, it also sweeps those issues under the carpet when it wants to give our lovebirds a happy ending. A stronger ending, if you ask me, will be to have Grayson remain unmarried but happily enjoying a semblance of married life nonetheless with Kate as his mistress. This is one story where the obligatory wedding and babies kind of ending goes some way in making the story even more unbelievable than it already is.
A Courtesan's Scandal is, for its first two-thirds or so, a good read with a heroine who isn't ashamed of doing what she has to do to survive, a cute stiff-lipped hero who thaws under her attention, and some really sweet romantic moments. Alas, the last third with its increasingly unbelievable moments and its many concessions to familiar tropes leave me feeling that the pay-off of this story is not as good as it could have been.
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