Brava, $14.00, ISBN 0-7582-0443-4
Historical Erotica, 2003
By the way, is this the same Pam Rosenthal, that book reviewer for several publications including Salon?
Anyway, fans of Judith Ivory, Karen Ranney, or Sandy Hingston, you may want to take a look at Pam Rosenthal’s debut romance novel Almost a Gentleman. The prose in this book has such a lovely cadence that I sometimes find myself reading aloud the paragraphs just to savor fully the words I am reading, just like how the hero says aloud the heroine’s name in his intoxicated delirium. This book is a Brava publication, but the true eroticism of this book comes from the way the author slowly builds up the tension between her main characters with her words, so much so that even me, a reader who has read enough scenes of oral sex and conventional sex in her books to the point that I can yawn at some books out there published as “erotic fiction”, actually have to fan myself at places.
The litmus test for readers is how they can accept a story where the heroine, Phoebe, can successfully pull off a masquerade as a dandy named Philip “Phizz” Marston for three years. Phizz is a popular dandy who sets trends and has a sharp wit that he uses to his advantage. There are women – and men – who are attracted to his androgynous beauty. But there are none who captures our “Mr Marston”‘s affection until Lord David Hervey, the Earl of Linseley, comes to London for the Parliament session and maybe to find a wife, and encounters Mr Marston in a ballroom. It’s love – and sexual confusion on David’s part – at first sight.
Phoebe’s reason for pretending to be a man is pretty poignant: a tragedy that ends her nightmarish marriage (a marriage that is nightmarish not because it’s a bad violent cartoon but because the bad marriage feels real enough) causes her to fall over the edge and decides to live as a man to experience all the freedom being the other sex will allow her. As for David, he is a walking testament of how authors don’t need to give a man issues to make him interesting. And David is… wow. He’s gallant, he’s chauvinistic, he’s selfish, and he’s selfless all at once, a hero who is real and larger than life all at once. He’s a pragmatic man who also, once in love, indulges in romantic whims of fancy that really, really (really) appeal to me. There is a mild suspense subplot in here – someone is sending Mr Marston threatening letters – that are nothing more than an excuse to throw these two together, but I’m not complaining.
Not when Phoebe is so gloriously real. She is a woman who revels in her sensuality – in the last three years, she has a young man who keeps her company, if you know what I mean. Her reaction to David is gloriously carnal, and I love how she accepts and relishes her sexual instincts and impulses. She has her dubious close-to-stupid moments in this book, but any woman who spends three years pretending to be a man can be excused for having her off moments, I guess.
But really, the main star of this show is Ms Rosenthal. She’s good. She reels me in with her evocative prose, and she makes the characters’ even more dubious moments acceptable because she makes her characters so real that I can understand what motivates them to do what they did. The characters are complex in that they are not fully noble. They don’t play at being martyrs – although I must confess that Phoebe comes close to doing so during the later parts of the book. They have selfish desires and they sometimes act on these impulses. Yet at the same time, they are also evidently good people with kindness in their hearts. They aren’t template Regency heroes and heroines, they’re characters.
The author also uses the setting of Regency London beautifully. The ballrooms are not wallpaper for inane Regency heroines running amok in dark gardens: every dance, every move the characters make, everything about the setting comes to life. The author also cheerfully acknowledges other elements of the era rarely touched by most Regency-era romances: the Oscar Wildes, the prostitutes, the working class, the land reforms, and the conflicts between the Lords in the Parliament. The author even touches about the gentleman’s club, White, a little deeper than most other authors out there. And don’t worry about any homophobic elements in this story: Ms Rosenthal doesn’t denigrate or ennoble the Oscar Wilde’s of the era, and I’m sure it’s better this way. Like her heterosexual characters, the homosexuals are portrayed as people with both flaws and strengths.
At the end of the day, reading this book is like living in the author’s imagination. The story isn’t entirely plausible, true, but I’m actually too involved in the potent chemistry between Phoebe and David to nitpick. When David waxes rhapsody over Phoebe’s armpit hair and the author makes him come off like the sweetest romantic ever, I’m a goner. It’s not the story that counts for me, it’s how the story comes alive and the characters make me sigh, weep, and laugh so many times throughout my reading.
The writing, the complex and often difficult characters, the poetry in the most decadent of love scenes, the way my emotions get pulled in so many directions by a book – well, keep writing, Ms Rosenthal. I have a feeling that we’ll get along really well together in the future.