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REVIEW: A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant

Dear Ms. Grant:

As I read your novel A Gentleman Undone I brooded over words from one my favorite 18th century wordsmiths, the great Alexander Pope: “Honor and shame from no condition rise. Act well your part: there all the honor lies.” Here Pope asserts honor and shame are products of  behavior rather than experience or birth. He pledges if we act honorably, we then have honor irrespective of what has happened in our lives. This is the premise of A Gentleman Undone. Both the hero and the heroine of your brilliantly written novel are consumed with shame; both, at times during your tale, act in ways they themselves define as dishonorable. And yet, by the story’s end, both are defined by their honor rather than their shame. It’s an interesting character trajectory, one that—like that in your first novel A Woman Awakened—takes tropes tried and true in historical romance and presents them in an utterly unique way.

It’s summer of 1815, the Waterloo Campaign is a deathtrap for a quarter of its soldiers, and Will Blackshear has made a medical misjudgment. He has carried fellow soldier and friend George Talbot, horribly wounded on the blood soaked grass of Belgium’s Quatre Bras, to a makeshift hospital in order to save him. Instead, by moving Talbot, he has damaged his spine. The man is now paralyzed, in great pain, and of no interest to any army surgeon Will takes him to. Will knows there’s nothing he can do to save his friend, but he can’t keep himself from lying and trying.

“I’m going to take you out of here.” The man’s eyes were closed, but his mouth tightened and he managed a sort of nod. “The wounded are too many and they can’t spare a surgeon or even opium. There’s no purpose in your staying.” There’s no hope. What good would he do the man by saying that aloud? “Another of the hospitals might be better appointed, and we might find you some gin, at the least.”

Gin. Not likely. Unless he proposed to start pillaging corpses in search of a flask. Of course that might come to sound reasonable, between now and when Talbot’s last breath left him.

Will gathered his dreadful limp form from the pew and nearly staggered, not under the weight of the man but under the weight of the man’s misguided trust.

A gentleman undone grantA little less than a year later, Will, now in London, is still trying to atone for his sin. He is determined to provide for Talbot’s widow and child, who are now stuck living on the cruel whims of Talbot’s married sister, and to make enough money to invest in a shipping venture run by a severely burned fellow veteran. He’s promised the latter three thousand pounds in a little more than a month—Will has less than a thousand and much of that must go to his living expenses. Will decided his only chance is at the tables—despite the fact he’s not a stellar player. It is at the mediocre gambling establishment Beecham’s he first glimpses Lydia Slaughter.

She, along with a few other courtesans, is playing cards near the table where he is desperately trying to win at vingt-et-un. Will notices her—she’s no traditional beauty but she draws and holds his attention. She, however, is already taken. She’s the mistress of a fellow player, the square-jawed Roanoke. Will listens as Roanoke and his friend coarsely discuss Lydia.

“I should never have bet on you keeping her this long. Not half so comely as the one you were squiring about last summer. Pretty winsome thing, she was.”

A small compression of Square-jaw’s mouth was the only sign he took offense at the questioning of his choice. “That one gifted me with a bastard child.” Green-jeweled cufflinks glinted in the candlelight as he reached out to gather in the cards. “This one can’t.”

“Or so she tells you, I’m sure,” was the first gentleman’s rejoinder, his undertone abandoned to more generally air his wit.

“She can’t.” With the patience of a crown prince accustomed to dull-witted minions he made this correction. “Something’s gone wrong with her insides. No monthly courses.”

….Where did you come by her?”

“Plucked her out of Mrs. Parrish’s establishment.” Roanoke took his time squaring the edges of all the used cards before putting the stack faceup at the bottom of the deck. “And you may believe they trained her up proper. If there’s a thing she won’t do in bed, I have yet to discover it.”

An hour later, Will, who has slunk away to the library to think bleak thoughts, finds his privacy interrupted by Lydia and Roanoke who have come to couple in between hands. Initially, the two don’t realize Will is hidden away in the corner of the room, and he, after giving them a moment to shove up against a wall, rises, prepared to abandon them to their carnal encounter.

Slowly he eased up from the chair, angling round the bookshelf for a furtive glance to assure himself they wouldn’t notice him.

He stopped, half-risen.

He’d been prepared for something sordid, a brute coupling between an importunate boor and a harlot who’d learned her trade at Mrs. Parrish’s. And of course it was sordid by its very nature, this retreat to the library, and Square-jaw himself was everything sordid, with his mouth at the juncture of her neck and shoulder and his hands groping here and there.

She, though. She was … Confound him if he could even begin to find the right word. He only knew sordid wasn’t anywhere close.

She stood with her back to the drapery, eyes closed, chin lifted, whole person swaying with pleasure.

Lydia opens her eyes and sees Will watching her revel in her paramour’s attentions.

She said nothing. She didn’t jump away from her lover, or yank up the bodice he’d tugged down, or cross her arms modestly before her. Only her eyes, widened and showing an excess of white, betrayed her consciousness of exposure. And that, for only a second or two, though the interval was sufficient to make him feel like a thoroughgoing cad.

The bookshelf’s edge bit hard into his hand. He couldn’t seem to look away, let alone make an apologetic bow and hasten from the room. He stood, frozen, as she regained her composure and her face hardened into the unmistakable lines of defiance: Judge me if you dare. Then that expression too subsided and only her falcon-like blankness remained. She looked through him, and past him, and altogether away.

Will leaves, his desire for her now a thing of hunger. Later, the two come down, having missed dinner, and Roanoke again picks up his cards. This time, however, Lydia sits in his lap, and as Roanoke dozes, Lydia takes up his cards and plays in his stead. At first, she seems a mediocre player, but, by evening’s end, she’s won four hundred and eighty pounds, one hundred and eighty of which have come from William. Lydia scoops her winnings from the table and puts three hundred pounds in her lover’s pocket. The other hundred and eighty—Will knows exactly how much it is—she puts in her bodice.

Will is sure she has, with great skill, deliberately cheated him out of his money and the next time the two meet at Beecham’s, he finds her alone and tells her so. She, arch and erotic, tells him he has no proof. He tells her he needs the money and she says so does she. She is striving to save two thousand pounds—a sum she reckons will buy her an independent life. Will insists his need is more immediate and less selfish. He asks for her to be compassionate. She, as she leaves the room, says it’s three years too late in her life for that.

Later though, when Lydia goes to a bank—a place ladies do not go without a man of business—and tries to invest the money she’s been saving from her table winnings in an annuity, she’s treated like the whore she once was. So, when she next sees William at Beecham’s, as she sits in her sleeping lover’s lap, playing his hands, she restores William’s one hundred and eighty pounds. William wants to know how the devil she did it and, as soon as he gets the chance, he asks her to teach him her methods. She agrees, if he will help her find someone to act as her man of business. The two make a bargain, designed to win them both large sums in the gaming hells, and begin a partnership.

A Gentleman Undone is, albeit a dark one, a romance, and, from the moment Will first sees Lydia writhe in pleasure at Roanoke’s touch—and she sees him watching her—a strong sexual bond begins to build between the two. Though Will promises he’ll take no liberties and Lydia knows Roanoke would cast her out for sharing her body with another man, the two, through words, looks, and proximity, find themselves struggling greatly to keep their relationship strictly professional. Almost half the book has slipped by before the two kiss–although those hoping for incendiary passion will find their wait pays off in spades.

Lydia is an avid lover—she seduces Roanoke again and again in this book not just to keep his interest but because she likes to.

She’d never bedded a handsomer man—at least so far as she remembered—and this one prided himself on satisfying her. That was more than many women might ever enjoy.

She slid her hand over and let it rest on his thigh. She would lay waste to him tonight. To herself as well. She would hurl herself against him like a wave breaking over a rock. She would claw her way to oblivion as many times as she must, until no fragment of human feeling remained.

Her fingers inched along until they met his breeches-buttons. His eyes half-opened, groggily, and when he’d blinked about enough to sort out the circumstances, his mouth spread into a smile that promised her everything, everything, she could ever expect from a man.

This passage, though, hints at the contradiction that rules Lydia’s actions. Lydia seeks from men hard, rough, shattering sex which, though she enjoys, she also uses to destroy herself. Tormented by the role she feels she played in her family’s downfall, she became a whore with hope of literally having that choice kill her. She hasn’t any shame about the way she sells her body but, she hates herself for what she did three years ago.

This sense of shame is one that Will shares—he cannot forgive himself for what transpired between himself and Talbot. Will senses in Lydia someone who is just as dishonorable as he. He couldn’t give a damn about her sexual past or even the fact she’s fucking Roanoke—he feels a profound connection with her that he’s sure he’d never feel with an honorable woman. Or rather, with a woman society deems honorable. From the moment Will hears Roanoke speak dismissively about Lydia at the gaming tables, Will wants to defend her honor with all he has. To Will, Lydia with her brilliant mind, sly wit, and brash confidence, is honorable. Not only is she honorable, she’s worth fighting for and fighting with—Lydia does not see herself as a worthy choice for Will. Lydia sees Will as an embodiment of honor—she watches the way he is in the world and she sees him as ethically admirable. As their lives twine together, the vision each has of the other changes first the other’s self-perceptions, and next, actions. By the book’s end, Lydia and Will have embraced Pope’s belief—it’s how they live and act that defines them rather than the sins of their pasts.

This book, like its predecessor, is precisely and perfectly written. The language of the book, especially its descriptive similes and analogies are gorgeously done. There are so many places where the words on the page conjure instantly evocative, visual responses.  I love the writing in this book. I love the way the reader expectations are satisfyingly confounded at every turn. I love Lydia and Will—both are absorbing characters I swear I’ve never encountered before. I like—only like–the affair between Lydia and Will. At the book’s end, Will and Lydia have put their pasts to rest and embraced each other and a committed future. But, in order to trust that happy ever after, I must trust Lydia can love Will (and herself) enough to stay with him throughout the years to come.  I’m not sure Lydia, in particular, is capable of leaving her desire for self-destruction behind. I believe in the love Lydia and Will share at the book’s end; I have less confidence that Lydia will be able to sustain it.

A Gentleman Undone is a beautifully written book and one that rewards readers with a superbly novel take on historical romance. And while I lack faith in the implicit promise at the end of the book, I am wholly certain the book itself is a winner. I give it a B+

Dabney

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I loved romances when, back in the mid 70's, in junior high, I read every Barbara Cartland novel I could check out from the library. Then, thanks to a savvy babysitter, I got my hands on the hot stuff. To this day I can remember how astonishingly steamy I found Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. I abandoned romance when I went to college and didn't pick one up again until 2007 when I got my first Kindle. Since then, I’ve read countless romances; loved many, liked more, hated some. Most of what I read is historical and contemporary romance, but I’m open to almost any genre. I like my books to have sizzle, wit, and plots that make sense. I’d take sexy over sweet any day. I’m a sucker for smart heroes and smart-mouthed heroines. When not reading or writing about reading, or wishing I could rule the world, I'm meddling in the lives of my kids--I have four, ages 17 to 21--, managing my husband's practice, doing bossy volunteer work, and hanging out with Dr. Feelgood.

22 Comments

  1. Molly O'Keefe
    May 30, 2012 @ 07:19:00

    I just started this last night and it’s amazing. I remember Jane saying about A Lady Awakened that she’d never seen characters quite like that and I totally feel that way about Lydia. A courtesan – who likes sex? Really likes sex? It’s great. “Go away and come back when you have another erection…”

    And while we may have seen a hero like Will – he’s so beautifully written.

    Historical romance is so good right now, isn’t it?

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  2. Dabney
    May 30, 2012 @ 07:35:06

    @Molly O’Keefe: The genre is pretty damn fabulous these days. I’ve read at least five historical romances in 2012 that all were breathtakingly well-done.

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  3. AnimeJune
    May 30, 2012 @ 07:45:56

    I loved, loved, LOVED this book. As much as A Lady Awakened. Cecilia Grant’s writing is just spectacular!

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  4. Molly O'Keefe
    May 30, 2012 @ 07:51:40

    @Dabney so much genre twisting, emotional depth, new time periods, excellent novella length fiction and I think just some of the best flat out WRITING – between Milan and Bourne and Thomas and Grant…I’m so happy to be a reader these days!!!

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  5. Dabney
    May 30, 2012 @ 07:54:50

    @Molly O’Keefe: Have you read Elizabeth Essex? She’s also quite fabulous.

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  6. TKF
    May 30, 2012 @ 09:24:40

    There have been quite a few authors who’ve written courtesans who liked sex, didn’t apologize for what they were, etc (yes, it’s a trope I love). Off the top of my head, Loretta Chase (Your Scandalous Ways), Julia Ross (Games of Pleasure), and Isobel Carr (Ripe for Pleasure) have all tackled that one, and quite beautifully too.

    I’m looking forward to trying to this one, but hope I connect with the characters more than I did in Grant’s debut, where I was just never able to warm up to the heroine. I’m a little scared by all the talk of “shame” in the review, as that’s not really something I look for in a heroine (especially a courtesan).

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  7. Karenmc
    May 30, 2012 @ 09:40:16

    This is a great review, Dabney. I was floored by A Lady Awakened, which seemed to me the best debut since Meredith Duran’s The Duke of Shadows. To have Grant adding to the wonderful crop of newer authors (I agree completely with Molly’s list) makes me a happy, grateful reader.

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  8. Dabney
    May 30, 2012 @ 10:52:48

    @TKF: I’m not a big shame fan either. She’s not ashamed of being a courtesan–she’s blaming herself for something that happened to her when she as 16. It works in this book well.

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  9. Jennie
    May 30, 2012 @ 15:53:09

    I loved this book – I gave it an A and I think I may have liked it better than ALA, chiefly because the heroine was so interesting to me in this one (I liked the heroine of ALA though, too). Finally, a romance writer who convincingly writes a heroine capable of feeling lust – not lust that’s really love, but just plain physical desire. Both characters were complex and sympathetic and I did believe in the HEA, I guess because I felt that Lydia turned a corner by admitting she loved Will, and Will is patient and honorable enough that I believe he can handle Lydia’s darkness.

    I can’t WAIT for Grant’s next book!

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  10. Dabney
    May 30, 2012 @ 16:34:41

    @Jennie: I did love love love the lustful wench portrayal. I am hopeful for Lydia and Will, but not sure for them.

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  11. Dabney
    May 30, 2012 @ 16:35:24

    I am still wondering what it was that caused Lydia to stop having periods. That’s such an unusual symptom–more unusual than infertility.

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  12. cecilia
    May 30, 2012 @ 17:35:49

    @TKF: Regarding the shame, I think it’s more about events before becoming a courtesan than it is the fact of being a courtesan.

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  13. Dabney
    May 30, 2012 @ 20:17:03

    @cecilia: Absolutely.

    ReplyReply

  14. Janine
    May 31, 2012 @ 00:28:06

    I’m skipping this review for now because I want to know as little as possible about the book before I read it. That worked for me really well with A Lady Awakened. I will be back to comment when I’ve read the book.

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  15. Rosario
    May 31, 2012 @ 09:48:49

    @Janine: I wish I’d done that, there was quite a lot of blow-by-blow plot description here. Although one of the scenes described and quoted has made me even more keen to read this (I love it when authors take cliched romance novel elements and stand them on their heads!)

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  16. Praxidike
    May 31, 2012 @ 09:52:41

    I just can’t wait to read this book. I am slogging through Tangle of Need, and my present for finishing it will be sitting down on Sunday and devouring this book in a single sitting.

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  17. Susan/DC
    May 31, 2012 @ 17:10:33

    I loved “A Lady Awakened”, and I’m happy to hear this is just as good. If you like books with courtesans, you should try Rose Lerner’s “A Lily Among Thorns”. It not only has a former courtesan as heroine, but the hero is not an aristocrat, which makes it doubly unique. Of course neither of those features would be worth a penny if the book weren’t well written, but it is.

    I wish a long and prosperous career to both Ms. Grant and Ms. Lerner.

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  18. Dabney
    May 31, 2012 @ 17:19:53

    @Susan/DC: I thought the writing in A Lily Among Thorns was fabulous and I loved the hero. I had a hard time warming to Serena. She came across as so chilly to me. Still, Ms. Lerner is a great writer and I am waiting for her next book!

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  19. Susan/DC
    Jun 03, 2012 @ 13:17:28

    @Dabney: I recently sent an e-mail to Ms. Lerner to ask for the publication date of her next book. She responded and, unfortunately, she does not have a publisher. I’m disappointed that one of the new, fresh voices in romance is having these problems.

    ReplyReply

  20. Janine
    Jun 05, 2012 @ 18:17:53

    I finished reading A Gentleman Undone and left my comments on the thread for Janet/Robin’s review.

    ReplyReply

  21. Darlene Marshall
    Jun 11, 2012 @ 08:47:23

    I enjoyed A Lady Awakened very much, and with A Gentleman Undone this author has moved to my autobuy list. Excellent summary of what makes the book work so well.

    ReplyReply

  22. REVIEW: A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant
    Jun 23, 2013 @ 13:22:04

    [...] first two books, A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone were both straight A reads for me, so I was delighted when I saw that A Woman Entangled was [...]

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