The Courtesan's Daughter
by Claudia Dain, historical (2007)
Berkley, $14.00, ISBN 978-0-425-21720-7
"I choose my own path. That is the entire point."
"I was under the impression that the entire point was to get you bare-breasted, a feast for my eyes and hands and mouth. We can't seem to agree on anything, can we, Caro?"
Her nipples tingled in response to his words and to his gaze upon her, so stern and yet so sad. He was an odd man, this Earl of Ashdon, odd in that he either seemed to be fighting some demon within himself or fighting her. She quite decided that she preferred not to share him with any demon. From now on, Ashdon would fight her, if she could manage it. She was quite certain she could.
She was her mother's daughter, and she was not going to let Ashdon forget it.
"I can think of one thing we'll agree on," she said.
"What's that?" he asked.
"In a few minutes, we're both going to agree that I have exceptionally lovely breasts."
The above excerpt sums up beautifully what The Courtesan's Daughter is all about. It's bawdy, it's funny, and it breaks every rule in the book where Responsible Formulaic Romance Heroine Behavior 101 is concerned. There are many moments here where the ensemble cast flout rules of propriety and get away with it with spectacular results. The heroine is unapologetically seventeen and acts immaturely like a spoiled and sheltered young girl of that age. Her mother was one of the most successful courtesans London has ever known, who managed to enter the fringes of acceptability by marrying the besotted Stuart Trevelyan, the Earl of Dalby about twenty years ago. If you are still with me, you may enjoy what Claudia Dain has to offer in this bawdy ensemble tale of Regency ballroom naughtiness.
Our 17-year old heroine Caroline Trevelyan is seventeen. She's sheltered and rather spoiled, although her confident exterior masks a very insecure young woman who feels that she can never measure up living in her extravagant mother Sophia's shadow and that she may never find a man who will prefer her to her still attractive mother. In other words, Caro wants to be wanted and loved for herself and not because she's a poor man's Sophia. She decides that she will become a courtesan like her mother so that she can gather her own admirers who will flatter her 24/7.
Sophia and Caro's more streetwise good friend Anne Warren are appalled because it is obvious that Caro has rose-tinted and even romanticized ideas of what it means to be a courtesan. Meanwhile, Sophia has decided to literally buy Caro a husband so that Caro can settle down into a life that will be more respectable than one Sophia currently has. She clears the debts of Lord Ashdon. If Ashdon marries Caro, Sophia will consider the man's debts to her cleared. Unknown to Caro, Ashdon is raised to be the Estella to his father's Miss Havisham: Ashdon is going to ruin Caro publicly to avenge his father's losing Sophia to the Earl of Dalby. Actually, the whole story between Sophia, Stuart, and Ashdon's father is a bit more complicated than that but for the sake of this synopsis, let's assume that things are that simple.
But poor Ashdon will find his own world turned upside down when he realizes that Caro doesn't want to marry him because she'd rather be a courtesan. Wounded pride turns into obsessive infatuation when he begins to fall under Caro's spell. Meanwhile, there are a few subplots revolving around these main characters' friends and family members, not all of them fully resolved by the last page of this book. The Courtesan's Daughter is as much an ensemble Regency soap opera as it is a romance.
Sophia is the undisputed star of this story as she pretty much steals every scene she is in. She can be over-the-top in how ridiculously omniprescient in this story as she controls the other characters like a Machiavellian puppet master, but she's really a colorful character. She's a man-eater, survivor, bitch, and occasional fount of wisdom all in one and her rapport with the other characters that orbit around her is really fun to follow. She is not ashamed of her past. She's not proud of everything she does, but she's not going to apologize for doing the things she did to get to where she currently is. I adore her.
Caro's appeal is more subtle, although I find her actually more fascinating a character than her mother. At her age, she's looking for ways to rebel against her mother, and in this instance, being a courtesan is her way. It's also her way to establish her own identity separate from her mother, I feel, and while this is not exactly the most sensible career plan one can have, I don't think Caro knows of any other alternative way to break out of her mother's shadow. No one allows her to forget that she is her mother's daughter, after all. Being a courtesan is no doubt Caro's idea of proving that she can be as good as if not better than her mother so that people will start adoring her for who she is rather than humoring her because of who her mother is. That's my interpretation of Caro's character in this story anyway. I think Ms Dain manages to do a pretty good job here in showing me who Caro is and where she stands as a character. Sure, Caro can be really silly at times and she's often childish too, but at 17 and as a young woman born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she is just being who she is.
As the story unfurls, I find it most intriguing how Caro tentatively tries to play the games her mother plays with ease on her conquests. Ashdon is pretty much Caro's guinea pig as Caro tries to mimic her mother's effortless manipulation of the opposite sex. She's out of her depths most of the time, heh, and it shows, but just as often Caro finds herself either listening to her mother's advice or recalling how she's seen her mother work her magic in order to cast the same spell on Ashdon. Poor Ashdon, for all his experience in matters of the flesh, is soon besotted beyond reason and I find that too amusing for words.
Ashdon is more of an uncomplicated character compared to Caro in that he is... well, a not too smart male, let's be blunt here. He tries to do that alpha male He-Man thing when it comes to schooling Caro, but as the above excerpt illustrates beautifully, Caro for all her sexual inexperience often ends up holding the leash while Ashdon, figuratively speaking of course, begs for a taste with the tip of his tongue touching the ground.
The Courtesan's Daughter is not perfect, though. The story becomes increasingly farcical as I turn the page, which isn't a bad thing in itself, but the plot also becomes more convoluted as well, which is a pretty bad thing. There are twists within twists galore here to the point that sometimes I feel that I ought to take out pen and paper to make some kind of chart to keep track of things. Also, within the last few chapters of this book, the author suddenly introduces a passel of family members for Caro and Sophia that are nothing more than obnoxiously obvious sequel baits. These characters also take away much of Sophia's character because the whole thing about her being this wily survivor who rose from the gutters to the top becomes deflated when it turns out that she has plenty of family members all along who are actually available for her to summon over. The last few chapters of this book are easily the weakest aspects of this story.
Still, I have plenty of fun with this book because of the unorthodox female characters and the amusing comedy that plays out as they beckon towards their unsuspecting male victims to come over and amuse them. How can I not adore a book that has the following scene?
When Louisa opened her mouth to argue, Amelia hurriedly said, "Don't you wonder, Louisa, why Lord Dutton, who has never before looked at Caroline Trevelyan except to say hello and good-bye to her, would suddenly present her with a pearl necklace? In fact, don't you find it odd that three gentlemen in one evening would do so?
"She probably asked for a pearl necklace, that's all," Louisa snapped. "There's no mystery here, Amelia. She had the cheek to ask for pearls and pearls were showered upon her. Not unlike her mother, is she? I heard something similar happened to Lady Dalby, though with sapphires. Like mother, like daughter."
"Do you mean to say," Amelia said softly, watching Lady Dalby laugh with Mrs. Warren and Lord Staverton, rumored to have sealed their engagement this very night, "that all a woman has to do is to ask for what she wants? And then, she gets it?"
Louisa turned her bright, red head to stare at Amelia. Amelia stared back at her. Was it truly as simple as that?
Beautifully played, Ms Dain.
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