I tend to stall before reading romance novels. Because it’s never just one book, really—that one book is just the first. From that one book, usually started on a Friday night in or a lazy Saturday afternoon, I pick another and then another and then another, with only at least an hour or two between books—and I’ll surface from the romance novel binging days later with only the vaguest notions of what one book was about, or how a piglet brought together the couple in the third book, or why it was that I spent the wee hours of Sunday morning crying over the hundred and thirty-second page.
It’s never just one. And it’s unfair to the books—and unfair to me, a ninny who likes to hoard her book-Feels (well, um, Feels in general, really) as much as she likes hoarding books. What’s the point of going through all the emotional turmoil and barely remembering any of it? (Healthy way of doing things, ayuh, but weeks and weeks have been spent this way.)
Anyway. I’ve read my first romance novel of the year—The Rake, which is (I am almost certain) my first book by Mary Jo Putney. (As if the hoarding of favorites’ backlists and the auto-buys aren’t enough, I unbend once in a while and try out new-to-me authors—with much trepidation, second-guessing, and Googling.) The Rake, a slightly revised reissue, appealed because it seemed to me a pretty straightforward Regency. (Fine, it appealed because it had such a potential for angst, which is totes my jam.) Even though, okay, it’s far removed from the ton, the heroine is a breeches-wearing land steward, and the hero is an alcoholic. Curiously enough, that last bit’s what’s made The Rake such a classic, as Google informs me, in the romance-reading world.
The gist is: Reginald Davenport is a gambling, drunkard rakehell who’s been finally given his birthright in the form of an estate. He throws himself to the task—overseeing the welfare of his people, the erm financial stability of the land, the washing of the sheep idk—with the help of the steward, who happens to be a lady, Alys Weston. Alys is of the straitlaced, no-nonsense sort, mannish in her ways because of her role and her upbringing, and very competent at her job. Attraction, blah blah, romance.
Let’s get it straight, though, that Reggie is one of those fake-rakes—the gambling tempered and actually very scientific, the womanizing not remarkable for the age. But Reggie, though, is an alcoholic. He’s the romance novel hero whose shot of whiskey before bed is taken to the addictive extreme. Fake-rake Reggie may be, but he’s slowly killing himself with the drinking. I believed it. This novel is largely about Reggie—is his life just that more compelling, then, that whatever Alys held stood no chance?
At about the halfway point of the book, with Reggie making yet another deal with himself re quitting drinking—No alcohol for two weeks, he’d wheedle, just to take the addictive edge off—and somewhat succeeding for a time, Alys Weston looks at him and realizes, “She was only a minor actor in Reggie’s world. His happiness or misery, his drinking or sobriety, had nothing to do with her. The silent battle he was waging with his inner demons was far more important to him than she would ever be.”
And I really liked that. It would have been suspiciously, disrespectfully easy if Reggie had pinned his recovery to Alys—whom he hardly knows, really, and with whom (at this point) he’d hardly shared a romance with. I liked that Alys had this observation, and I liked that Alys’ observation even rang true from Reggie’s side—picking himself up from whatever failure, the promises he made himself would never involve Alys. At best, when he’d relapse or falter and Alys is there to see it, that’s where his shame of her having seen his failure hits. In many ways—even when what romance there is in the book was in full force (well, as much as it could be)—Alys’ involvement in Reggie’s recovery from his drinking problem was very, very minimal.
Unfortunately, although I found Reggie’s struggle to be very compelling, the same couldn’t be said for Alys Weston—or even for their romance. That little excerpt up there encapsulates the whole of this romance novel, actually. Alys was a minor actor in a narrative that was widely Reggie’s—which is a shame, because Alys’ unusual independence (and success) could have been made as gripping. Also: There was a belated, too out-of-left-field plot point thrown in to make Alys very exciting, but that was hardly believable—come on, angst-hint at it more, Putney—and it seemed to me rather desperate. Most of Alys’ inner life was, well, mostly about how to run the estate. A good thing to have in common with the supposed love of your life—but I would have appreciated actual chemistry that went beyond their natural rapport. Was Alys too aloof? Too rigid? Too enamored by crop rotation? Dunno.
So, for the TL;DR crowd: The Rake is a powerful and compelling exploration of a hero’s fatal flaw; the brandy-swilling hero narratively pushed to an addiction. Read it for that. And if you like long discussions of how to run an estate, idk. The romance is secondary to Reggie’s development as a character and his struggle with his alcoholism, which I understand and I respect and am actually quite thankful for—but, unfortunately, it’s a distant second within the narrative. A little more effort could have been put in to make Alys seem to me as compelling? A little more angst and love and passion? A little more conversation that didn’t involve sheep?