Dear Ms. MacLean:
The day before I wrote this review I was stuck in the library of a large public high school, waiting to be called to a debate tournament. I was there for eight hours and only judged one match. The rest of the time I spent re-reading One Good Earl Deserves a Lover and its predecessor, the first book in the The Rules of Scoundrels series, A Rogue by Any Other Name (reviewed here by Janet.) I like the series as a whole better than I like either book individually. I also like A Rogue by Any Other Name better than One Good Earl Deserves a Lover. While the hero in the first book–Bourne–is a jerk whose redemption is hard to buy, I found him and his brutish courtship of Penelope Marbury interesting. Cross, the hero of this book is so saintly and guilt-ridden, I wanted to toss him, tied to the heavy metaphorical cross he bears, straight into the Thames. His story and the woman with whom he is paired, Lady Philippa Marbury (Penelope’s weird younger sister as opposed to Penelope’s beautiful younger sister, Olivia), left me wanting.
Phillipa, in a scene that’s not actually in One Good Earl Deserves a Lover but in the final pages of A Rogue by Any Other Name, walks into the gaming hell the heroes of the series own, The Fallen Angel, and propositions Jasper Cross, one of the hell’s four partners. (The four are the Scoundrels of the series.) Phillipa is to wed, in less than two weeks, the kind but unintelligent Lord Castleton. She, a brilliant amateur scientist, is concerned she doesn’t understand specifically what the carnal side of marriage entails; she’s seen a bull mate but knows human coitus must be somehow different. After using her large brain to think very hard about how she might learn more about the machinations of mating, she’s decided to ask Cross, her brother-in-law’s friend and partner and a known rake, to prepare her for her sex with her future groom.
“As an obvious man of science . . . I should think you would be willing to assist me in my research.”
“Your research in the mating habits of bulls?”
Her smile turned amused. “My research in carnal lust and appetites.”
There was only one option. Terrifying her into leaving. Insulting her into it. “You’re asking me to fuck you?”
Her eyes went wide. “Do you know, I’ve never heard that word spoken aloud.”
And, like that, with her simple, straightforward pronouncement, he felt like vermin. He opened his mouth to apologize.
She beat him to it, speaking as though he were a child. As though they were discussing something utterly ordinary. “I see I wasn’t clear. I don’t want you to perform the act, so to speak. I would simply like you to help me to better understand it.”
Cross, who finds her maddeningly alluring, coldly points out surely she could and should ask someone else. But, because this is the silly plot device upon which this novel is based, Phillipa can’t. She can’t ask her sisters (Penelope only waxes lyrically about true love with Bourne; her two older sisters are unhappily married; Olivia is to be wed on the same day as Phillipa), and books are–and this is never made clear why–either unavailable or not appropriate. Cross crossly tells her no and she wafts out of his office with the rather random line, “I do wish you’d call me Pippa.”
Phillipa, or Pippa as those close to her call her, doesn’t give up. She keeps showing back up at the Angel and causing no end of hassle for Cross who, absurdly, has decided not to tell Bourne about Phillipa’s dangerous forays into the London forbidden to Ladies. Cross is a dedicated martyr and self-designated savior of the world. He feels it is he, and he alone, who must save Pippa from her dangerous curiosity as well as her propensity to run into Cross’s nemesis, Digger, the cretin who owns the low-rent hell next door. Digger is yet another headache for Cross–Cross’s crippled sister Lavinia’s husband (Baron Dunblade, a loser in many ways) owes Digger ten thousand pounds and, unless Cross marries Digger’s daughter, Digger will ruin Lavinia and her children. If all that drama weren’t enough for one
martyr man, Cross has the constant stress of maintaining his reputation as a scoundrel when in reality, he’s better behaved than most choirboys.
Ms. MacLean can write beautifully and sensually; for me, the Love by the Numbers series greatest strength is the way Ms. MacLean explores sex and sexual attraction. In One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, however, the lust Pippa and Cross feel for each other from the start of the book is over-discussed and over-analyzed. Cross won’t let himself touch Pippa–and I mean that literally, he tries not to have any physical contact with her–because he has judged himself for his past sins and sentenced himself to a life of miserable, self-flagellating (not, thankfully, literally) aloneness. There’s far too much print devoted to Cross’s inner-monologues on his moral ruin–I’m not a big fan of guilt-ridden protagonists and Cross’s constant mea culpa litany drove me nuts. I wasn’t as bothered by Pippa–she’s one of those funky bluestocking heroines written to make readers celebrate the victory of brains over beauty (although of course she’s, behind her gold-rimmed spectacles, a knockout)–but I also grew tired of her inner chatter. Far too much of the novel takes place in the minds of the leads; all the telling distanced me from the narrative.
Though I didn’t enjoy the romance in One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, I did enjoy reading the book. Ms. MacLean has created a great context for these novels. The world of the Angel and the characters who are a part of it are vividly rendered. I love the relationship between the four Angel owners–Bourne, Cross, Temple, and Chase–and am exceedingly curious to see where Ms. MacLean takes her last two Scoundrels. There are at least seven secondary characters whose stories wend through the series I want to know more about: the publisher Duncan West and the mysterious woman who longs for him (I have a theory about her identity….); Sally, the whore by choice; Didier, the cranky chef; Digger’s daughter, Maggie; Castleton; and the Austen reading doorman Asriel. They, and the Angel itself are hugely entertaining. I also liked the book’s penultimate finale–the plot’s resolution is by far the best part of the tale. (The last scene in the novel is predictable and pat but expected.) The prose is very good; Ms. MacLean is a strong, seductive writer and she excels at creating an almost visual sense of place. Here, Cross is looking down at the Angel’s floor:
His gaze flickered over the men on the floor of the hell. A handful at the hazard tables, another few playing ecarte. The roulette wheel spun in a whir of color, a fortune laid out across the betting field. He was too far away to see where the ball fell or to hear the call of the croupier, but he saw the disappointment on the faces of the men at the table as they felt the sting of loss. He saw, too, the way hope rallied, leading them into temptation, urging them to place another wager on a new number . . . or perhaps the same one . . . for certainly luck was theirs tonight.
Little did they know.
Cross watched a round of vingt-et-un directly below, the cards close enough to see. Eight, three, ten, five. Queen, two, six, six.
The deck was high.
The dealer laid the next cards.
If all casinos were as entrancing as the Angel, I’d better understand their pull.
I had a hard time grading this book. As a romance, it’s a C. As a novel and as a continuation of the many stories in the series, it’s a solid B. I’m going with a C+ since it does least well what it should do the best: tell a convincing, compelling love story.