REVIEW: Falling for a Rake by Eve Pendle
Dear Eve Pendle,
I decided to try Falling for a Rake, your 1870s-set historical romance, after hearing great things about it from an acquaintance whose recommendations I trust.
Lady Emily Ravensthorpe is a fern collector. It is the perfect hobby for a young lady, and Emily is committed to maintaining her propriety and that of the other women in the Ladies’ Association of Fern Enthusiasts and Hunters, the fern-collectors’ group that she formed. Emily hides a painful secret and she’s convinced that being perfect for the rest of her life is the only path forward.
Oscar, Lord Markshall, has a dark past of his own, one that has robbed him of his respect for anyone who can stand him despite knowing of it. Oscar is attracted to Lady Emily, but what he wants is her condemnation. Earning it will prove to him that he’s right about himself, that the world is right about him, and most importantly, that Lady Emily is worthy of his respect.
When Oscar joins Emily and the other ladies on a fern-collecting expedition, he and Emily fall down a pit and are trapped together. Oscar gets his opportunity to reveal his past. He tells Emily about Lydia, the young lady he abandoned years ago, after she became pregnant. About how, after having ruined her, he went on his merry way without giving much thought to her or to their child.
What Oscar conceals is that several years later an encounter with Fanny, an impoverished young girl he initially mistook for his daughter, shook him and awakened his conscience. Now he keeps contact with Fanny, has his own daughter watched from afar, and does what little he can for the poor, especially for women and children. He pretends to be a feckless, dissolute lord—exactly what he once was—and uses that pretense to try to manipulate and trick the Tory party supporters in his club into backing reform bills. Sometimes he’s even successful.
Emily, unaware of these good deeds, recoils from Oscar’s confession. There can be no forgiving or accepting someone who did what he did. Her attraction to him, she’s sure, is a sign of the flaw in her own moral character. After hearing his story, Emily experiences one of her recurring nightmares about her late fiancé. She can’t wait to be free of Oscar’s company.
Once they are rescued from the pit, though, the story of the night they spent together unchaperoned gets attention in the press. Oscar suspects that an enemy is persecuting him by feeding the newspapers tidbits about his and Emily’s supposed improprieties. That presents a serious problem for Emily. Her sister, Connie, is unmarried and any further spots on Emily’s reputation could ruin Connie’s prospects. When Oscar proposes marriage as the solution to her woes, Emily agrees only to a sham engagement.
Can Oscar and Emily come to terms with their pasts, and with the other’s past actions? Can they have a successful relationship? And how do you find happiness when you’re convinced that you don’t deserve it?
Falling for a Rake is an interesting book. Its beginning is rocky because Oscar’s desire to be condemned by Emily was very quickly met. Though her resulting aversion to him presented a satisfying obstacle to a romance between them, what was less satisfying was that he didn’t fully *want* a romance with her. He’d sabotaged their relationship and the result was that the romantic tension in the first half or so of the book wasn’t that strong.
Oscar’s desire for a happy life with Emily gets stronger and stronger as the novel progresses, and the second half is much better. We see how on some level the rejection he sought from her almost breaks him. But since doesn’t fully embrace his need for her and pursuit of her until the second half, it takes that long for the book to engage the reader fully.
I also couldn’t square Oscar’s dastardly past with the conscience-stricken, ethically driven man he was in the novel’s present until around the last third of the book. What he’d done to Lydia was horrible, and his atonement in the present wasn’t triggered in a believable way. It was hard to buy that his meeting with the impoverished Fanny would jar him into being so invested in the fate of the poor and of his child when the birth of his own daughter hadn’t made him care.
I appreciated some of the historical details the story was based on, such as pteridomania (the fern-collecting fever of the mid-to-late Victorian era) and the Contagious Diseases Act (liberties were taken with how the latter was debated in Parliament, but that was acknowledged in the author’s note at the end of the book). I really liked reading a historical romance built around historical events.
My enjoyment was disrupted by a couple things, though. First there’s Fanny’s name. It’s a rude word for female genitalia in Britain so it jarred me.
There are also *a lot* of copyediting errors. Here are the ones I noticed:
[…] forget about his daughter all together.
“When they you go to […].”
He sounded surprised that should even know […].
“That was the limit of my responsibility, I told himself. […]”
“Lady Emily, or rather Lady Markshall before she married, […]”
“It’s come in through the servant’s entrance […]”
It wasn’t what he associated with a fern as, not being a curly, frilly thing.
Without his volition, his hips moved back and then slid back into her.
Badly-copyedited text can be bounce the reader off a book in the middle of enjoying it, and that happened to me here.
Falling for a Rake had a lot going for it, though. Oscar and Emily’s backstories were unusual and so was the way their relationship played out. Both characters were guilt-ridden but their approaches toward dealing with their remorse were diametrically opposite.
Oscar believed he was irredeemable and looked for corroboration of that in the contempt of others. He handled his guilt by pretending to be worse than he was. Emily thought the only way to surmount her past was to pretend it had not happened and be the flawless, perfect lady.
Because of their unusual pasts, Emily and Oscar didn’t fit familiar types. Oscar was a fake rake only to a degree, in his current pretense of dissolution. In the past he had been a real rake, dissolute indeed. His error was not a minor faux pas, but something he could never, ever fully make amends for. Emily’s past mistake was equally grave, and equally hard for her to live with.
The book’s theme was one of self-acceptance. That too played out with freshness. The characters didn’t come of age, or merely embrace desires they’d previously feared. They had to surmount the insurmountable, accept the unacceptable. Forgive themselves something they could never fully make reparation for.
With its unusual, tortured characters, its fresh conflict, and its focus on actual Victorian stuff, Falling for a Rake should have riveted me. It had almost all the things I ask for a in a romance. But for a reason I can’t put my finger on, the authorial voice held me at a remove and it took me almost two weeks to finish. This is the kind of thing that might very well not be an issue for others.
I can see a lot of potential in the writing and I’d like to try another Eve Pendle novel, but the number of copyediting errors is disheartening. If not for that, I would more eager. C+/B- for Falling for a Rake.