Topaz, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-40686-9
Historical Romance, 1998
Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake is, simply put, a really enjoyable romance story. The hero is likable, the heroine is smart (oh, those days when heroines don’t behave like ten-year olds!), the plot is straightforward and plausible, and if the characters feel familiar today, Ms Putney still manages to make them come to life for me to care for their story.
Yet, I just don’t actually understand what the fuss is about this book being so great and revolutionary. Maybe the traditional Regency version, The Rake and the Reformer, was revolutionary and groundbreaking for its genre, but when rewritten into a Regency-era historical romance, The Rake seems too nice and too light in tone to qualify as a hard-hitting book to me.
Reggie’s story begins when an unexpected act of generosity from an unlikely source allows him to regain his estate of Strickland to run and manage as he please. Reggie returns to realize that the steward that runs Strickland so well, AE Weston, is actually a woman. The A in the name stands for Alys. Alys deliberately allows people to believe that she is a man so that she can run Strickland with minimum interference and she isn’t too pleased with Reggie’s presence in her life.
Reggie is an alcoholic and he is written well-enough to come off as genuine. But at the same time, the author also gives Reggie a sad, sad childhood and has everyone understanding and sympathizing with him. It’s a classic case of an author giving a villain his story and then going “See, he’s not that bad! He’s just misunderstood!” instead of actually making Reggie work for redemption. Alys is a strong heroine but she also becomes one of those too-wise women that apparently instinctively knows the goodness inside Reggie and cheers him on to do the right thing.
This is my biggest problem with The Rake being touted as hard-hitting and very important: from the way this story is written and the way Reggie’s character is handled, I can easily imagine Ms Putney saying to herself, “See? My book is very important because it has an anti-alcoholism message! And Reggie, hmm, how shall I make him even more sympathetic?” as she works away at this story. This one like a morality tale firsthand, a romance story only second during the later and more didactic portions of the book.
To be fair, Reggie doesn’t whine. Reggie doesn’t act like a jerk. But isn’t he supposed to be a jerk?
I like Alys and Reggie’s love story when they aren’t trying too hard to start a Regency-era Alcoholics Anonymous prep-talk session. But throughout the story, I never feel that the story will ever take a slide down the uncertain path. Reggie is portrayed too nicely and too sympathetically. The story seems very self-conscious about its Very Important Message but dumbs down Reggie’s previous abominable actions into a “Don’t Drink Like a Fish or You’ll Be Bad Like Reggie!” slogan.
The Rake is a story that wants to be important and ends up being more important than it actually is, when all it is is a very well-written and enjoyable story. Alas, it’s still a story about an unconvincing redemption of a rake where all bad behaviors are conveniently pegged to a single moral failure and some bad childhood influences that are washed clean by the love of a virtuous and moral woman.