One of the suggestions of the Australian Women Writers reading challenge is to read books in genres you don’t normally read. For me, that’s romance novels. I’ve tried ’em. I decided that it was not appropriate to diss an entire genre of books without ever having read one. So I grabbed a pile of books from a friend and read. And was not impressed
One of the suggestions of the Australian Women Writers reading challenge is to read books in genres you don’t normally read. For me, that’s romance novels. I’ve tried ’em. I decided that it was not appropriate to diss an entire genre of books without ever having read one. So about ten years ago, I grabbed a pile of books from a friend and read. And was not impressed.
I’ve read maybe about 40 or 50 romances over the last decade (I thought they were good for reading in the bath when I was on holidays–light, fluffy, and if I dropped them in the bathwater it didn’t particularly matter as we all knew how it would end.) Out of that number, I’ve perhaps enjoyed four or five books, where there was a bit of a plot, and the protagonists were engaging, witty or at least not infuriating. Most of the romance novels made me want to crawl into the pages and set fire to the protagonists for being inane, shallow, disrespectful or just utterly humourless.
However, I know a good number of intelligent, lively, creative, talented women who I admire and respect who also read romance fiction. I’ve also been reading a lot about a kind of gender snobbery that says ‘pink is bad because girls like it’, or ‘stories about relationships and domesticity are bad, because women’s stories are not important’. I recognised that I’d bought into some of this arse-about devaluing of thing for being associated with girlishness. Pink is just another colour. Romance is just another genre. And, as Sturgeon’s Law so clearly states, 95% of everything is crap. The trick is to look for the five percent that’s worthwhile in everything. (And yes, I’m aware that my five percent may not be your five percent at all.)
So I sent out a call: “Clearly I am reading the wrong kind of romance fiction! Tell me what to read!” Several recommendations came back, including The Perfect Rake, by Anne Gracie.
And what a joy it is! Laugh out loud funny in places, with lead characters I not only do not want to drown at birth but whom I positively adore.
The basic plot is that Prudence and her four sisters, through the premature death of their parents, have been living with their vicious and abusive grandfather. When he breaks his ankle chasing Prudence in order to give her a thrashing, she sets an enterprising plan in motion. She’ll soon be 21 and allowed to have guardianship over her sisters, but one of them needs to be married in order to also have the inheritance that will support them all.
They run away to London to stay with their kindlier Uncle Oswald, but since he considers Prudence so plain, he won’t allow the others to debut until she is safely married off (otherwise she’ll never snag a husband, what with the competition of her much more stunning sisters.) The trouble is, Prudence has a secret fiance, and she can’t tell her uncle without giving the whole game away that they’ve run away from the hideous grandfather, who no-one will believe is such a brute.
So Prudence pretends she’s secretly engaged to the Duke of Dinsborough, safely living as a hermit in Scotland. Only he isn’t. He’s in London, looking for a wife.
Shenanigans ensue, complete with wild fabrications, fake engagements, mistaken identities, secrets withheld and revealed, dastardly deeds and dashing rescues.
Prudence is strong, intelligent and full of heart, but bound by her honour, which is the only thing left she has to call her own. Despite a traumatic past, she has spirit and an excellent sense of the ridiculous. Lord Gideon Carradice is a gadabout with a reputation as a rake. He has a wicked sense of humour and he teases Prudence almost constantly, but underneath it all he is kind and gentle. Together, they are infuriating and hilarious.
The story is set in the Regency period, but the trappings of the time are just that. The characters feel fairly modern, but the setting provides a charming backdrop and reasons for some very old-fashioned (and occasionally arcane) attitudes. What romance is not improved by the insertion of a ball, after all? The Austen-esque ambience mixed with some daring love scenes is a fun combination.
While not as complex and detailed as Austen, nor indeed as historically authentic, The Perfect Rake evokes the era sufficiently for its purposes. Naturally, as a romance there are certain elements of the pacing and timing of events that are a bit predictable, but in the context of this being a light, fun read, I found I could easily forgive a little obviousness. Gracie may be manipulating my emotional reactions, but hell, she does it so well and with such lightness and good humour, I’m happy to let her.
I’ve never really been averse to romance in the stories I read, and though I prefer relationships to be part of a bigger story, this is just the kind of rollicking good read that is a perfect break from the complex world-building of, say, The Gift, or complex scientific and philosophical ideas of Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia.
Now I think about it, there’s not a world of difference between the entertaining approach of The Perfect Rake and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. There is less pretending to be dead, but a lot of pretending to be other things.
In fact, with all the people pretending to be something they’re not, and getting engaged under odd circumstances, and spirited womenfolk landing chaps hip deep in the bouillon, there’s more than a touch of PG Wodehouse about it all. Wodehouse was never in the slightest bit sentimental with the romantic plots in his books, but let’s face it, his plots are often pretty much how the young sweethearts manage to overcome obstacles before meeting in a coy embrace at the end. In fact, when my husband asked me to describe the plot ‘in 25 words or less’ (which I failed to do) he said, at the end of it, “Sounds like something from Wodehouse. Is there a helpful valet around?” (There isn’t. A friendly footman and a nasty butler, but no wise valet.)
The fact that you know how a romance is going to end – the young lovers will overcome obstacles to be together – seems irrelevant. In many books, the nature of the ending is fairly clear. It’s how they’re going to get there that keeps the interest up. The TV series Monk did this very well. In a one hour TV crime comedy, you’re pretty much going to guess whodunit in the first ten minutes. Monk himself frequently does so. The story then becomes a howdunit, and we go along to see what kind of strife the Obsessive Compulsive Detective is going to get into while he works out how the crime was committed.
I’ve strayed a long way from my original theme, and I fear I may be getting too eager to justify why I finally found a romance novel I liked. But that’s part of the problem. I don’t need to justify it. Either I like the book or I don’t. And I love it. The Perfect Rake is a fine, fun, frequently hilarious adventure in love. If you want to dip into the romance genre, this is an excellent place to begin.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.