Review: The Rake, Mary Jo Putney

Cover comment: I think this shows that covers can be sophisticated without being boring.

For fun, below is the cover of the original, The Rake and the Reformer, which is not too shabby, considering it is a pop culture product produced in the 1980s. It actually illustrates a scene from the book in great detail, down to the rosebush and the color of the heroine’s dress, something you don’t see that often these days.

Series: No, according to Putney’s website, although I believe one or more minor characters appear in other Putney novels.

Setting: Mainly the hero’s country estate, Strickland, in Dorset, with a few scenes in London.

Main Characters: Mister Reggie Davenport, the “Despair of the Davenports”, a rapidly deteriorating alcoholic rake and gambler with a heart of gold in his early 40s, who suffered myriad abuses and losses in childhood, and Miss Alys Weston, the honest and supremely competent steward of Strickland, who suffers from a mild form of body dysmorphic disorder thanks to her unfashionable 5’10” height, heterochromia, and the residual effects of a humiliating betrayal at age 18 which led her to flee her home (leaving her origins a mystery for most of the book) about 12 years prior.

Distinctive Features: The heroine is gainfully employed as a steward and wears breeches. The hero’s battle with the bottle is treated seriously.

My take in brief: For the first 2/3 of this book, the characters are so real and their interactions so exciting and tender, that I was on the DIK bandwagon, but it becomes more ordinary — although still very good —  as all the loose ends are tied up in somewhat hasty fashion in the last 1/3.

Word on the Web:

Marianne, AAR, Grade: A

Jean, TRR, Rating:  5 hearts

Ana, Book Smugglers, Rating: 7, Rating:  4.5 stars after 44 reviews

Fun factoids:

1. The Rake was number 68 in the 2007 AAR list of top 100 romances.

2. The Rake is a 1998 update and expansion of Putney’s 1988 The Rake and the Reformer, which won the 1999 RITA for best regency romance. Here’s what Laurie had to say about the update: “Mary Jo’s The Rake and the Reformer is a Regency that effectively stretched the boundaries of what was acceptable in the Regency sub-genre. She decided to re-work her classic into an historical while remaining true to the storyline.”

I was barely aware of the difference between Regency romances and historical romances before reading Laurie’s comment, so I looked into it. If you’re curious, here’s the Wikipedia entry on Regency Romances (which is probably as inaccurate as everything else there). And here’s a discussion of the Regency prompted by the elimination of the category from the RITAs by Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight.

This is the second Putney I have read, after the wonderful One Perfect Rose, as I make my way (with many detours and not in order) through the AAR list of top 100 romances. I decided to borrow it from my local library after reading and reviewing Liz Carlyle’s Never Romance a Rake, when Book Smuggler Ana mentioned the similarities.

Romances about rakes stand or fall on the characterization of the hero. We have to be appalled by his behavior (he has to be a real rake) while at the same time feeling sympathetic to him. Authors often use a tragic past to generate reader sympathy, but it has to be believable — too heinous a past and it becomes horror, too mild and he becomes a self-pitying wimp. Reggie’s childhood was terrible, but with spots of brightness that made his losses seem all the worse, and, even more important, Putney fills us in on the adolescent and early adulthood disappointments and betrayals that bring our hero to his present dissolute state.

I’ve been on a real rake run lately, and I have had a chance to think about why I like them. I think it has to do with the character complications the rake brings to the table. Thanks in part to the inherently conservative bent of most romances, the rake’s sexual promiscuity always signals other character problems (he’s never a perfect guy who happens to have a sex addiction). Hence, a rake is much more interesting to read than a Mr. Wonderful.

The rake story centers around working through the hero’s issues without changing him in unbelievable ways. And while all romances have the component of hopefulness signaled by the HEA, there’s a special quality to the hopefulness a good story about a rake brings us. As Mary Jo Putney herself said:

it often takes a very strong person to seize that second chance and turn his or her life around. You’re right that this is a recurring theme in my work. That’s because the subject fascinates me. Being broken by tragedy is understandable but not very interesting. Far more interesting is the person who grows and changes and becomes stronger in the mended places.”

Reggie has been drinking and whoring his way around London when his cousin, who inherited a title Reggie himself had been expecting, ends his allowance and gives him back his childhood home, in a last ditch effort to reform him. From that point, the story is about Reggie’s return to Strickland, where he faces his demons, and faces off with Alys, who has been running the estate for years and worries about what the residence of the new owner means for the length and conditions of her employment.

Reggie’s alcohol addiction is truly horrifying. It is not a sugar coated plot device, and his eventual quest for sobriety is handled as realistically as possible within the constraints of this genre, as Putney manages to inject AA philosophy into this historical without it feeling too anachronistic.

Alys is strong and competent as a steward, and loving in her capacity as a guardian to three children, but she lacks confidence in her femininity. Alys is a character to admire in many ways, but she’s quite serious, and her fears about her looks create misunderstandings of Reggie’s behavior that are well beneath a woman of her intelligence.  When the incident that led her to flee a life of privilege — not for a year or two, mind you, but for her entire adult life — is revealed at the end of the book, it’s clear that Alys is ridiculously thin skinned, and places an inordinate importance on her appearance.

There are two great things about this book:

1. The relationship between Reggie and Alys: they are together for the better part of a year, and their relationship grows in so many ways: their work together on the estate, their friendship — especially poignant as Alys comes to understand the extent of Reggie’s drinking problem — and their sexual attraction. As to the latter, how refreshing it is to read a portrayal of a sexual attraction so hot it sizzles, while at the same time giving us characters who have better things to do than lust after each other all day. These two are adults, and they act it.

Here’s an example which illustrates the honesty and humor in their relationship. In one scene (the scene portrayed in the original cover above), Alys flees to the garden to escape one of Reggie’s insulting former lovers, and Reggie follows:

“In  a stifled voice Allie said, “I was feeling a bit faint and wanted some fresh air.”

At least she wasn’t throwing things at him. Mildly, Reggie said, “You? Faint? The woman who can work twelve hours straight in the high summer and never tire?”

She eyed his dark outline warily, unsure why he had followed her outside. “Very well. I wasn’t faint. I was furious.”

“That’s the Lady Alys I know,” Reggie said approvingly. “Are you going to favor me with a colorful description of my morals, manners, and ultimate fiery destination?”

She had to smile. “I considered it, but try as I might, I can’t quite blame you for that bit o’ muslin’s behavior.”

2. That last line about the “bit o’muslin” brings me to the second really great thing about The Rake: the setting. In the traditional Regency, the setting, especially the portrayal of society, is almost a character in itself, and that’s true here. We get a detailed and fascinating picture of English country life, though the eyes of characters at several different stations in society: not just Alys and Reggie, but there are two secondary romances, one involving servants, that further enhance the picture of 19th century rural life.

I don’t want a history lesson, and some authors go too far in this direction for my tastes (the canal subplot in Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful, for example) but Putney manages to seamlessly knit the setting so tightly with the action. And while some authors throw in a few “bloodys” and a reference to Tattersall’s and call it a historical, Putney shows ’em how its done by weaving historical locutions into her characters’ speech throughout the entire book.

There’s more to say, but this review is already too long. I’ll end by noting that while I don’t agree with the rankings of the books on the AAR list (who does?), I appreciate its existence, as it keeps wonderful “old” books in front of new readers like me!

Published in: on September 6, 2008 at 8:59 pm  Comments (10)  
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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Oh you read it! Isn’t it , in parts, a wonderful book? I loved how she dealt with Reggie’s addiction , I was on the edge of my seat rooting for him.

    I agree with you 100% on that 2/3 of the book is firmly on DIK but the last 1/3 was way too tidy for my tastes.

    In any case, I highly Recommend The Rake.

  2. My favorite Putney is Uncommon Vows. I don’t think you’ll find it on the AAR Top 100 — it’s a somewhat controversial book and not everyone’s cuppa — but I love it.

    I also love much of the Fallen Angels series. One Perfect Rose is the last one, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. IMO they are even better when read in order. Shattered Rainbows, the one about Stephen’s brother, is my second favorite of hers.

  3. Ana — Thank you so much for recommending The Rake. It was a great read!

    Janine — I will add those to my list. You know, both the Gaffney and the Ivory you recommended are out of print — I had to win them on EBay!

    It’s inevitable that the shiny and new will attract attention, but it would be a real shame to lose some of these enduring classics forever.

  4. Really? I knew the Gaffney was out of print but I had no idea about Beast. What a shame!

    That’s one good thing about e-books — backlists are going to stay in print longer.

  5. Oh, forgot to add: is a good source for finding out of print books.

  6. I love this one!! I’ve read (and own) both The Rake and The Rake and the Reformer. I had to do both because I read The Rake first, then wanted to see the difference between the two. The Rake has more background information the The Rake and the Reformer and is a bit more padded. But both are very enjoyable.

  7. I liked “The Rake” and I agree, the last chapters didn’t keep up with the ones before. And I second Janine’s recommendations: “Uncommon Vows” is one of my favourite medievals, and “Shattered Rainbows” is really good too (the first part especially; I thought the ending a bit much).

  8. Janine, Got it bookmarked. Thank you!

    Kristie, thank you for the info on the difference between the two versions. I was curious about that. I also read that the sex scenes were ramped up. Is that true?

    Taja, Thank you for those recommendations!

    As an aside, I thought no one would read this review of such as old book, but it’s the best thread yet! Thanks everyone!

  9. I think they probably were a bit more explicit in The Rake as TRATR was a traditional regency and they are a bit milder in that department. But it was the more in depth knowledge of Reggie and Alys that I appreciated most about The Rake. Also, it was explained more clearly WHY he inherited Strickland and why he was so torn about it.

  10. I should reread this one. ONE PERFECT ROSE was my first Putney, and I have very fond memories of it; THE RAKE was my second, and set me firmly on a path of glomming.

    My other faves of hers are RIVER OF FIRE (Regency artists, with bonus post-Napoleonic Wars angst!) and DANCING ON THE WIND (the rest of that series, the “Angel” books, are consistently good).

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