by Janet Mullany, historical (2007)
Avon, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-06-122983-1
Janet Mullany's debut regency Dedication is easily one of the most unconventional books marketed as traditional regency. I'm sure some horrified readers are still fanning themselves after reading it. The author's follow-up, The Rules Of Gentility, follows the same tradition. It can be considered a regency romance due to an absence of sex scenes, but there are some scenes of frisky antics and plenty of frank mental lusting from both the hero and the heroine to send these same readers reaching for the smelling salts once more. If you like Dedication, you'll most likely enjoy this one. If not, well, there are many other books out there.
Billed as Pride And Prejudice crossed with Bridget Jones's Diary, The Rules Of Gentility is told from alternate first person point of view from the heroine Philomena Wellesley-Clegg and hero Inigo Montaya, oops, Inigo Linsley. Instead of being a mere novel with a concept, this one is a little bit more than it seems though. The Rules Of Gentility sneakily pokes fun at some of the most overused plot devices in the romances set in the Regency era with the author often deliberately having her characters behave in typical situations in a most untypical manner.
Philomena is nineteen. She is secretary of the Association for the Rescue and Succor of Those in Extremis (there's a joke in here somewhere, see if you can figure that one out). She has two twin sisters and her mother is hoping that Philomena will make a good match when she makes her debut at the Marriage Mart. Her father is more preoccupied with his business. Sounds like a familiar heroine? Well, Ms Mullany also makes the Wellesley-Clegg a family in Trade hoping to make a good match in order to elevate their status. Philomena is a heroine who loves to shop for bonnets (I did say this book is inspired by Pride And Prejudice, did I not?) and - get this - while she is not aware of the mechanics of the acts involved in the marriage bed, Philomena is not ignorant of desire. She feels desire, she is excited by it, and she finds good-looking men attractive to look at.
I suspect that readers who prefer their heroines to be more of a "I wanna save the world, just let the hero save me first!" type will be the first in line to call Philomena "selfish", "unlikable", and "historically inaccurate". They are not entirely wrong, since Philomena can be self-absorbed here, but then again, she's 19, self-assured, and comes from money. Something is wrong if such a woman turns out to be some kind of joyless martyr.
Inigo is the youngest son, which means he doesn't have a penny to his name and is everything Philomena shouldn't be looking for in a husband. However, the moment they encounter each other (Inigo's sister Julia has become Philomena's good friend), sparks fly. Inigo is a more realistic kind of rake in the sense that he has had his share of indiscretions in the past but the author doesn't exaggerate the man's sexual prowess or amp up the man's baggages to justify his antics. Inigo, in fact, has little baggage. He's a happy-go-lucky guy who enjoys life although he's not without a sense of responsibility where his loved ones are concerned.
The stage is set, therefore, for Philomena and Inigo to dance their way through their courtship. This is pretty much the story. There are no external conflicts barring the Other Man thing to spice things up. It's all about Inigo and Philomena. Their courtship is filled with what seems like a kitchen sink full of clichéd plot devices like An Adventurous Outing To A Scandalous Place, A Slight Miscommunication, The Heroine Plays The "I Can't Marry You!" Martyr, and more while the secondary characters are recognizable stereotypes at first. However, the fun is in following Ms Mullany as she guides her unconventional characters through these familiar plot developments. The first half of the story has Inigo coming off as the more familiar "rake" type while the second half has Philomena being the more familiar "I can't marry you!" type, but even so, these characters are far from conventional stereotypes.
As I've mentioned, I like the fact that Philomena isn't completely clueless about feeling desire for Inigo. This is a realistic young woman with working hormones instead of some child-woman heroine who doesn't know a thing about funny feelings until she meets the hero. Philomena has a joie d'vivre that is infectious. She can be quite silly or childish at times, but that's because she's 19 and she thinks that she's on top of the world. But even then, Philomena is well-aware of the nature of the marriage in her time and love is only the icing on the cake provided that the husband is rich, has a pleasant mother, and doesn't bore her too much. She's sometimes silly and sometimes so sensible, but she grows up as the story progresses and I like her.
As for Inigo, he's adorable as this rascally good-natured fellow who is completely flustered by Philomena but he's very, very appealing in the second half of the story when he becomes this hopelessly romantic fellow who will fight for his love rather than to wallow in self-pity and let Philomena get away.
The story does not have any sex scene but there is a pretty strong undercurrent of bawdiness underneath the proper facade of the main characters. The Rules Of Gentility also has some very amusing one-liners. The only problems I have with this book are that the more farcical elements in this story often feel too much and out of place compared to the more sedate elements in this story and I don't really get to know Philomena and Inigo as much as I would like to. Inigo seems to have an interesting past but it is only hinted at in this story. I wish I can know more about the main characters and their past. Philomena and Inigo are often doing things to amuse me when sometimes I wish they will settle down and talk to each other a little bit more.
Still, The Rules Of Gentility is a most enjoyable and laugh-out-loud fun romp featuring memorable characters that don't follow typical conventions, with it packing a pretty solid emotional punch towards the end. As a bonus, the author's attached "top ten things no one would ever say in a Regency-set historical romance" is fabulously funny. Go take a peek at it in the bookstore even if you have no intention of buying this book.
Oh, and since Philomena doesn't want Thomas Darrowby, the nice fellow, can I keep him?
He shakes his head. "Oh, Philly, Philly, you're in way over your head. He's charming, a good enough fellow, but feckless and unscrupulous. He'll squander your fortune, he'll -"
"Stop it, Tom!"
"Philly," he says quietly, and takes my hand. To my surprise, he draws off my glove and kisses my fingers.
"Tom!" It is not the exciting sort of sizzle Mr. Linsley produces, but there is something there - tenderness, affection, and a sort of sadness, too, all from his lips on my fingers. "You haven't done that since I slammed my finger in the stable door when I was eight."
I wrench my hand back, startled by the expression on his face. "And that was your fault. If you and Robert had not scuffled in the doorway I should not have been hurt."
"I don't want to see you hurt again, Philly, your fingers or your heart."
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