In praise of oddness

MACLEAN - One Good Earl

I bought Sarah MacLean’s One Good Earl Deserves a Lover ten minutes before the bookstore closed for the Easter break—it was, quite obviously, a panic buy. It’s the second book in her Rule of Scoundrels series, the first of which [A Rogue by Any Other Name] was also my first MacLean read. I found that one to be competent, but not particularly remarkable. I bought One Good Earl anyway, because, ya know, there are far worse long-weekend-companions than competent books.

Quite an un-stellar introduction, sure, but I’ll cut to the chase and say that One Good Earl Deserves a Lover is the first romance in a long, long, far-too-long time that had me floored; it’s the best historical romance I’ve read in recent memory (or, judging by my Goodreads, in a year or so)—it’s one of the most affecting books, no matter the genre, that I’ve ever spent a handful of hours with. It had me muttering, over and over, “Oh man, you’re a good book”—and almost despairingly; I would look up to P., who I’d shooed away early on and complain, “This is such a good book!”

The premise is all-too-familiar, albeit with the necessary specificity. Lady Philippa Marbury is betrothed to a simple, decent-enough man—but Pippa, of an enquiring mind, simply needs to know what’s in store for her in the marriage bed. (And, you know, this could all have fallen into mere lip service, but I believe Pippa—I believe her single-minded determination to know things, and to know them based on empirical truth. Or, in this case, on research.) She’s a scientist; she believes in process and fact—she believes, most of all, in knowing things, in certainty. Marriage—which is coming up in two weeks, mind you—happens to be a big black hole of information; there’s very little literature on hand, there’s very little source of useful advice in her circle.

What’s a scientist to do but proposition a man known to be a morals-evading scoundrel, one with quite a reputation with women—a man who, by all accounts, would successfully fulfill Pippa’s need for research? Enter Cross, a partner in the dastardly-named Fallen Angel, exclusive gaming hell. He’s the accounts guy, the man who’s chosen to translate his skill with the numbers (card-counting, anybody?) into balancing the books. All you need to know, for now, is that he’s this hot ginger. Okay, then.

At this point, the novel may well have slotted itself more firmly into the formula. But. One of the things I liked best about this novel was that it was inconspicuously trope-busting. You expect one thing to happen—haven’t I read too much of that premise?—but the characters step up and become credible people, with rational beyond-the-romantic-formula decisions, and turn the tropes topsy-turvy. Case in point: When Pippa storms the gaming hell (well, the door was open, she points out) and propositions Cross to help with research (not with the act itself, mind you), we fully expect the hero, scoundrel that he is, to accept. Because that’s the sort of thing that happens all the damned time in RomanceLandia.

But Cross says no, calls it mad—calls her mad, and shoos her away. Because that’s the sort of thing one does, scoundrel or no, when one’s got common sense—and when the lady doing the propositioning—mere research or no—is the sister-in-law of one’s business partner. And though I was left wondering what would happen next, how MacLean could manipulate these two into an actual relationship—never mind the sexy times, you see—Pippa stays true to her plan, to her quest, and finds alternative ways to get the knowledge that she so direly needs: She finds a prostitute to talk to.

The credibility of the characters was a big plus—a much-needed antidote to the arbitrariness that abounds in romance novels. And MacLean, almost despite her characters’ deeds and decisions, found a way to bring the two together—and in a manner that makes absolutely perfect sense. That [rare] respect accorded to this natural development of the relationship—to the not-so-simple process of falling in love, and that MacLean manages to highlight the sheer inevitability of it!—that’s what makes One Good Earl work. That is what makes it competent, even impressive.

But what has me whining about what a good book it was—what had me hugging the book to my chest as the rest of the Easter-stilled world looked on: Pippa and Cross. MacLean’s treatment of their reluctant friendship and partnership, and their inevitable loving (in that order) brought to the fore what Pippa was—and here’s Cross seeing that for himself, and finding himself fascinated then enamored by her—even if, all the while, he’s still trying to figure out how exactly that happened to him. It’s how Pippa opened herself up to the possibility of love—something she’d always eschewed because it didn’t make sense to her. It’s how Cross relents little by little, beginning from when he realizes what a curious creature Pippa was—up to when he looks forward to the little fascinations she delivers unknowingly—and all the way to the HEA.

* * *

There’s this scene, very early on in the book—after Pippa invites Cross to be her research partner, after Cross soundly rejects the idea: When I read it, a little ache bloomed right at my ribcage (it happens with the best books) and I found myself rubbing the spot—in much the same way, I’d soon learn, that dear Pippa Marbury herself would. At this point, we already knew the peculiarity of Pippa, how eccentric and strange she’s always been in the world she moves around in. But we’ve hardly had a glimpse into the loneliness of that position—and this small exchange reminded us. Pippa spoke plainly, she didn’t draw attention to herself, she was very matter-of-fact. Which made it all the more heart-squeezy. And it gave Cross the first cue for his relenting—it made Cross first look at her as more than a curiosity, but something to be drawn to; something more than a little strange and far too steely, something quite unlike anything he’s ever encountered before. And it made yours truly a gooey ninny:

“It’s because I am odd.” And then she looked up at him with those enormous blue eyes, and said, “I can’t help it.”

* * *

I am all out of steam; this post is one long happy-flail. The second paragraph is all you need to know from me about this book, really; everything else is just an elaboration. Sure, there’s more: Family secrets; the intricacies of running an exclusive gaming hell versus one of the lower dens; sex scenes that, logistically (harhar) speaking, are  much more chaste than most of the releases these days but has, nonetheless, has me fanning myself like crazy. You know. All those special, amazeballs things.

Anyway. The first book in the series—the one that was competent but not particularly affecting—is in my bag right now as I type this. This weekend, I set aside Irving and Wolitzer for good, and it’s MacLean’s A Rogue by Any Other Name who’ll be holding my hand as the rest of the week storms the gates. I’ll be reading it with the knowledge that the book that followed it simply restored my faith in the genre.

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