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The romance genre is a hugely popular one but the quality of writing within that genre does sometimes leave a lot to be desired and the stuff published by the likes of Harlequin and Mills & Boon has been largely responsible for the somewhat sneering attitude of many towards romance novels in general. Amongst all the dross, inevitable in such a crowded marketplace, there are some absolute gems. Nobody these days denies that Georgette Heyer was a gifted writer whose greatest success was through writing historical romances and there are many authors currently writing in the same arena with equally legitimate credentials. One of those writers is Mary Jo Putney, an American author but with the ability to create a great sense of time and place and to tell a wonderfully romantic love story.
Reggie Davenport is a rake, a gambler and an alcoholic who like countless addicts claims 'I can stop any time I like.' After a failed abduction attempt Reggie has retreated to his childhood home, on the orders of his cousin, to rusticate and escape from the scandal he has caused in Town. Expecting to find a run-down estate, Reggie is surprised to discover that not only has his estate manager, A E Weston, proved to be exceptionally competent and turned it into a highly profitable enterprise, but that A E Weston is a woman!
This book is one of my absolute favourites and is pretty nearly flawless in my opinion. Not only does it tell a romantic story extremely well but introduces characters who behave in a manner which is (almost) believable and the relationship which is at the centre of every romance is authentic in its development and deeply satisfying in its execution.
As the story unfolds so too does Reggie's and Alys's back story. Strickland is the ancestral home of Reggie's family but has passed into the hands of his cousin Richard who inherited the title. All this back story is told in full in a previous novel, 'The Wicked Baron', which I haven't read but in which Reggie is the villain of the piece. In 'The Rake', Mary Jo Putney takes up the story where 'The Wicked Baron' left off and demonstrates her skill as a writer by completely redeeming an almost unredeemable character to such an extent that the reader cares what happens to him.
Reggie is a handsome, caddish and sometimes charming rake but his drinking is killing him and somewhere deep inside of himself he recognises that fact, despite his claims that he can stop whenever he likes. The root of his problems lie way back in his childhood, beginning when he witnessed the death of his parents and siblings and ended up in the care of his uncle and latterly the English public school system. Surely enough to drive anybody to drink?
His antics in town bring him into conflict with his cousin Richard, who has stolen Reggie's birthright in some respects or that's how Reggie sees it. Richard, however, is an honourable man who recognises that there is a flicker of decency within Reggie's make up and he signs over Strickland, Reggie's childhood home, telling him that this is make or break time.
If Reggie has fallen from grace so, too, has Alys and for a woman of that time in a far more unforgiveable way. As a young girl of eighteen in her first Season, Alys made the mistake of falling in love and believing that her love was returned in equal measure has given up that most precious commodity, her virginity. (How times have changed!) The man in question was simply a fortune hunter and Alys is ruined and sent home in disgrace. Unable to bear it, she leaves home and manages to get herself a job as estate manager of the very run-down Strickland. Over the following few years, she's more than proved her worth and turned it into a huge success.
This is the only part of the story which tends towards fictional licence as I find it hard to believe that a Duke's daughter, for that's what Alys is, would have enough business acumen to run an estate, especially as women of her station were trained from a very early age simply to be decorative and brood mares and seal dynastic alliances. On top of which, Alys tends to stride around in trousers, very practical from a 21st century perspective but practically unheard of then other than on the stage!
That being said, both Reggie and Alys are very engaging characters and the reader wants them to have a happy ending and their love story progresses in a believable way with a decent time between meeting and doing the nasty. In fact, the development of their friendship is very well told and their inevitable move into a loving relationship wholly in keeping with events.
In actual fact, this book was originally published as 'The Rake and the Reformer' and glossed over the bedroom scenes. The book was a huge success and ten years later the author re-wrote the story as 'The Rake'. The story remains essentially unchanged but with the added embellishment of a couple of bedroom scenes. To be quite honest, the book was fine without them. It never did Georgette Heyer any harm leaving readers at the bedroom door.
The love story is heart warming and romantic without being overdone or too sentimental. This isn't a Barbara Cartland style story where the characters bear no relation to anybody living or dead. Mary Jo Putney's characters behave exactly as human beings from whatever time period, have always done.
With regard to Reggie's alcoholism which is not only an essential part of his character but also of the story, the author writes about the condition sympathetically and pretty realistically as well, though I'm not sure how much concern was truly given to heavy drinking back then as it was pretty much the norm for men and the condition certainly hadn't been given a name. There's no escaping the fact that this is fiction and romantic fiction at that, so we don't get the truly unpleasant aspects of alcoholism but there's sufficient detail there to make Reggie's fight against the demon drink believable.
The secondary characters are all very well rounded with definite personalities who add to the story's authenticity and the writer is sufficiently talented as to keep her dialogue very British despite her own non-British origins, which again adds to the sense of time and place.
For anyone who enjoys well written romantic fiction with a believable setting and an excellent plot, I highly recommend this book either in its original form or this later re-written version. Despite this re-write having been published way back in 1998, it remains in print and constantly appears in published top twenties of favourite romance literature and rightly so. It's a 5 star read!
Copies can be picked up for as little as 1p and there is now a Kindle version available for £4.19