REVIEW: A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant
Dear Ms. Grant:
Your debut novel, A Lady Awakened, is one of my favorite Romances of the past year. So I was particularly excited to read A Gentleman Undone, not only to catch up with the delightfully perverse Martha and her new husband, Theo, but also to discover if Martha’s brother, Will, made as fascinating a character study as she did. Had I not loved the first novel so much, I’m not sure I would have persisted to the middle of A Gentleman Undone, where I finally became engaged with the story and invested in the protagonists. In the end, I was glad I did finish the book, but I cannot recommend the novel without some substantial reservations about its pacing.
Will Blackshear brought a dark burden home with him from Waterloo, as well as a promise to provide for the widow and child of a fellow soldier – a man whose suffering and peril Will inadvertently exacerbated in his quest to save him. While we understand that Will’s self-blame is undeserved, his secrecy in regard to his pain makes it impossible for anyone to grant him absolution. What drives Will now is the need to make several thousand pounds quickly, so that he can secure financial freedom for his friend’s widow and son, bringing him to a somewhat respectable London gaming establishment in pursuit of a fortune from vingt-et-un.
So when he finds himself fleeced – by a courtesan, no less – he can hardly believe his poor luck. It is one thing to lose honestly, but this woman, who, not incidentally, had captured Will’s attention in other ways, had no right to cheat Will out of his much-needed and deserved winnings.
What Will does not know is that Lydia Slaughter is as hungry for a quick fortune as he, and she has even less time in which to secure it. Her current benefactor, Edward Roanoke (or “Prince Square-jaw,” as Will likes to call him), got her out of the brothel in which she had been working, and now she has to continue the forward momentum by using one of her greatest natural assets – her incredibly nimble grasp of numbers, especially as they conspire into odds at the gaming table. Lydia does not believe in luck; she keeps her faith in mathematics and in understanding (and thereby profiting from) the rules of the house.
Like Will, Lydia has some dark secrets in her past and an unearned burden of guilt, but unlike him, she does not have the privileges of the male gender, even the lesser benefits bestowed on untitled younger sons. However, Lydia does indulge in her own form of self-punishment, which, like her looks and her demeanor, tends to the unconventional: she indulges her robust carnal appetites without shame and with an almost aggressive ardor.
There are some Romance novels that work for me precisely because they play out genre codes and tropes so skillfully that I buy a love and a happiness I would likely reject in a real life context. This is not one of those books, at least not in terms of what draws Lydia and Will together; this is a book that challenges those very tropes and tries to make its own rules in the process. Will and Lydia’s meeting is one of happenstance that generates a logical need for further engagement and conflict: he will not walk away from the compelling stranger he is convinced cheated him.
In a more conventional Romance, Lydia and Will would likely begin a clandestine romance, endangering Lydia’s position with Edward and spurring all sorts of rescue fantasies in Will. Here, however, Lydia and Will ultimately enter into an entrepreneurial partnership in which they endeavor to help each other win the money they each require. Will needs Lydia’s mathematical skills, and Lydia needs Will’s presence at the lesser (and higher stakes) gaming hells at which they will be playing. And Lydia has made it very clear to Will that she will not sleep with him, especially given her precarious position as another man’s mistress – a man whose whim could send her out on the streets without any protection. Will is certainly in no position to take in a mistress. Because this is a Romance, we know Will and Lydia will eventually end up together, so much of the pleasure of the novel depends on how that relationship will grow and flourish given the somewhat unusual circumstances of its genesis (not the least of which is the fact that Lydia is actively sleeping with Edward while developing an emotional attachment to Will).
As in A Lady Awakened, this novel’s strength is built on the heroine’s intelligence and self-awareness, and on her need for personal agency within a society that seeks to limit a woman’s will in myriad ways. Lydia is incredibly aware of her social marginalization, and of the fact that her sexuality has commercial value, but likely not enough to purchase the economic freedom she seeks. That Lydia enjoys sex is more an irritation to her than a benefit, and she uses her enjoyment as a weapon against the youthful folly of her own past. She is smart, likely smarter than Will, and she is neither overconfident nor self-hating in her life choices. There is an authentic matter-of-fact quality to Lydia that makes her an extremely compelling character.
Will, on the other hand, is not as complex as Lydia, despite his brooding war burden. It may be that he does not diverge as starkly from genre conventions as Lydia. For me, the most interesting aspect of his character is the fact that his good intentions often backfire on him in ways that make it difficult for him to trust his own instincts. This may be why he is willing to trust Lydia to teach him how to beat the odds at the gaming hells, and it works nicely, both as a means to build trust between them and as a means of creating internal and external conflict. For example, when he lashes out at Lydia’s protector, he sets in motion a series of events that could have grave results for him and others, including Lydia. Still, he can’t seem to help himself, which makes his gestures both admirable and problematic.
There are some novels for which I can articulate shortcomings like a grocery list – the reasons that the book did not work perfectly for me are very clear. A Gentleman Undone did not present itself that way; while I absolutely believe that it all comes down to pacing, it is more difficult for me to pinpoint the exact moments in the text where I felt things went awry. Some of my problems with the book stem from the contrast between the first half and the second, because the first part moves quite slowly, while the second half almost barrels forward in comparison, only to sort of dissipate once again at the end. I am going to try to articulate some of my issues without revealing any major spoilers.
While I admire the way Lydia and Will’s relationship begins somewhat unconventionally (and all of this acquaintance takes place on page), between Will’s backstory, the gambling set up (which necessitated long passages explaining the art of card counting and odds calculations), the context of Lydia and Edward’s relationship, which establishes him as boorish (speaking publicly about her skills and her inability to bear a child, for example), and catching up with Martha and Theo through Will’s awkward interactions with his family (his self-imposed isolation makes them awkward), the first part of the book was both crowded with content and frustratingly unfocused. It was not until Lydia and Will begin their gambling outings, at almost the halfway mark, that the plot moves into its groove and begins to draw all the disparate threads of its development together.
It was not the lack of romantic movement in the relationship that made the first half of the book feel to me like it was casting around for purchase as much as the way Lydia and Will’s separateness was mirrored in the novel’s fractured rendering of their backstories. The necessity of Lydia’s distrust of Will also required them to be often out of accord with each other, just as they were getting to know one another, which layered a jagged stop-and-go effect over the extended plot set-up, adding to the slow pacing effect.
Consequently, at the point where Lydia and Will begin gambling together, I had an almost visceral sense of things moving into place and resolving into a coherent narrative purpose. At this point the contemplation of the nature of personal agency, as opposed to fortune, luck, and happenstance, becomes a cogent force in the novel, helping to build the momentum and organize the novel’s thematic priorities.
The issue of knowing and being able to do one’s own will permeates the novel, interwoven with issues of trust: Will cannot fully trust himself, while Lydia cannot trust others, especially men. Will has more liberty than Lydia, even though his exercise of that freedom often creates, rather than solves, problems. Lydia, on the other hand, has less freedom but more determination and self-awareness than Will, and so much of what happens between them in the course of the novel is related to the building of trust through the exercise of individual will. At one point, when the two finally land in bed, Will thinks he can make Lydia value the experience in a way that belies her own experience and self-understanding:
“I’ve told you what I enjoy. You may believe I know my own tastes.” Her voice was growing thin with agitation. She twitched like a cornered animal. “Don’t dare fancy you’ll be the man to teach me the pleasures of tenderness.” Tenderness was a rat whose neck she wrung with her own hands before hurling it over the hedge to rot with feelings.
These are two people who need to be fully resolved within themselves, who cannot save each other but can provide for each other the opportunity for self-salvation. Because the novel so often presents these moments during sex, it makes sense that the novel would move more powerfully once Lydia and Will are sexually engaged:
“You went to bed with me in the guise of an honorable man but you never were.”
He shook his head, jaw clenched tight. He’d betrayed her. He’d betrayed himself. He could make no earthly defense.
“You threw away your soul when you stopped that man’s blood and you can never, never have it back again.”
“I know.” One more pound of flesh torn away. He’d never wanted to own that truth aloud. He caught his breath on another spasm of sensation, in spite of the despair, and shook his head side to side. Stop. I can’t bear any more of this. Those were the words he ought to say but he’d forgot how to form them. He opened his eyes.
And he knew there’d have been no point in asking for mercy. It was a word with no meaning to the creature whose gaze met his.
She stared down at him, his judge and his ravisher, appalling as the eagle who’d feasted every day on Prometheus’s liver, and he as powerless as that Titan, chained to the rock, rent open, his darkest, most unspeakable secrets laid bare to her view.
Her eyes hardened. Her lips pressed tight. She leaned an inch nearer. “I love you,” she breathed, just loud enough for him to hear.
He gasped, one great rush of sustaining air. And he seized her with unyielding hands, and rolled her beneath him and drove himself into her, into her truth and her terrible strength and the pitiless love that was his only redemption in this world.
And came, claiming her, giving himself up to her, a woman so beautifully broken she could love a soulless man.
The emotional pay-off of a moment like this, expressed in such powerful prose, demonstrates the talented storytelling at work in A Gentleman Undone. Simultaneously, it raises the bar higher than the novel as a whole could reach for me. It is not that I wish the second half were weaker, nor that I wish Lydia and Will were more directly romantic in the first part of the book. It’s just that I wish the narrative felt as compelling and focused in the first half as it did in the second. Because these characters – especially Lydia – are complex and difficult, they require incredibly careful handling. I admire so much the way the novel strives to follow through on its commitment to personal will by not resorting to predictable deus ex machina interventions and coincidences, but I also felt frustrated at the points where the narrative tension dropped prematurely, especially because this happened most obviously at the beginning and the end of the book.
I will not reveal the ending of the novel, but I will say that conceptually speaking, it formed a logical nexus for all of the issues of trust, self-identification, and personal autonomy that were developed in the course of the story. So I’m not completely certain why, in execution, it fell somewhat flat for me. At one level I was thrilled it did not depend on some cheesy plot twist or overused trope. However, after so much emotional build-up, and so much complexity in setting out the conflicts and obstacles that we needed to believe could keep Will and Lydia apart, the final resolution felt too facile and quick. It could be my own genre conditioning, at least in part. But I also think that because the second half of the novel moved so quickly relative to the first half, that when everything just sort of ended, it felt more like dropping into a ditch rather than coming to an easy, smooth stop.
All of which leaves me torn. I adored Lydia and appreciated every unexpected turn the novel took with her story. The prose was often beautifully evocative, and when everything in the book was working together, I was deeply engaged and invested in the world Grant created. But when things felt out of sync, I was frustrated and even bored at times, left wanting more for these characters and their story. Still, I look forward to Grant’s next book, which is its own sort of recommendation for A Gentleman Undone. B-