REVIEW: A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure by Victoria Dahl
Dear Ms. Dahl:
Had you not sent Dear Author the ARC of this book for review, the cheesy cover, hackneyed title, and curious cover quote from Eloisa James – “So hot the pages smoke . . . ” – would have thoroughly deterred me from picking it up on my own. Which would have been a shame, as A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure is a much better book than all of those superficial markers suggest.
Both Emma Jensen and the Duke of Somerhart are in disguise, she as a widow of body, and he as a widower of heart, two incredibly lonely people who are grieving for more losses than they can even let on to themselves. The duke, Hart (or Winterhart, as he is now casually known), has never fully recovered from an early emotional loss, a true fall into love that ended disastrously and with incredible public humiliation. Emma has lost the entirety of her family, including a thoroughly reprobate father and an uncle whom she loved and who provided what little security and happiness she had after her mother’s early death. Left with a very small inheritance, Emma remains for a time with a local family, but ultimately plots to make her fortune in London as the fictitious dowager Lady Denmore (the title that still belongs to a distant relative), free to gamble and play at various games of chance without seeming too scandalous.
Except that Somerhart cannot keep his interested eyes from her, tempting her with a dangerous attraction and attracting the attention of the ton, who take Somerhart’s interest as confirmation that Emma is his latest mistress. Emma is both deeply afraid of and deeply attracted to Hart, afraid that he will remember her from the brief time they met at her father’s home (during one of his famous bacchanaliae) and downright terrified because he calls to her innate sensuality, a characteristic she ruthlessly suppresses because she does not want to be like her father. Hart is equally off balance around Emma, who calls to the innate romantic in him, a part of his personality he has cruelly attempted to dismiss from his character, and which has successfully obeyed his discipline until now. He finds Emma’s spoken resistance to his intention to make her his mistress an irresistible challenge, especially given her apparent disregard of society’s views of women who gamble for high stakes. He does not know that desperation drives Emma far more powerfully than true bravado, and his pursuit of her sexual attention brings them into a tense and tentative friendship – the kind of mutual sparring that draws them inevitably closer even as it is meant to sustain emotional barriers.
All of this may sound quite ordinary for the genre, clichéd, even. And it is to some degree. Through the first few chapters of A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, I fought the sense that I had already read this book so many times before (and I am sure I was still under the negative thrall of that title, cover, and author quote), persisting more from obligation than enjoyment.
But as Hart and Emma grow closer, and as Emma struggles against several real dangers imposing from her past, my engagement in the book and its characters deepened. I recognized an emotional current under all the formula that buoyed the characters and the conflict, and I resonated with pockets of prose that lifted above the norm. I knew I was reading a different book than I thought I was when I reached this passage:
Emma sighed and let her hand fall away from her body. She was alone as she’d always been, and it would not do to forget it.
Snow blew against her window, a speckling of icy drops, and Emma was drawn toward it. Lights from the rooms below shone across frosted grass. A tree branch sparkled with a thick layer of clear ice. Nothing moved but what the wind blew. Another empty night, and she was tempted again.
She wanted to run down the stairs in her bare feet and sneak out a side door. She wanted that blast of impossible cold, the stinging of her skin. She could walk for miles, she thought, before her body froze into crystals and was picked apart by a gust of wind, scattered into the world like magic. The little pieces of her would float forever, the whole sky would be her home. Everywhere. Nowhere.
All of a sudden I could feel Emma’s loneliness and despair, the sense of emotional isolation that made her more than a stereotypical Romance heroine fighting unmasking, impoverishment, and eventual degradation. Instead she was a woman who was feeling so alone that she was imagining her own annihilation into everything and nothing. At that point in the novel I became focused on Emma in a new way, rooting for her to find the kind of happiness she never contemplated for herself, urging Hart to be the man that she needed. Because as emotionally in control as he always kept himself, and as much as Emma threatened that control, he is downright well-adjusted compared to Emma, and for me, the book’s success depended on him recognizing and understanding that.
Without revealing the turn of events in Hart and Emma’s relationship, I will say that I was pleased with how these two characters moved through the stirrings of their growing relationship. Hart can be a jerk, but he is also smart and – shockingly – he thinks things through, recognizing, if a bit late, that things are not what he initially thought they were. Emma, who feels the need to be punished more acutely than her desire to be loved, is drawn more to Hart when he is cruel to her than when he is kind, as his kindness represents a temptation to that dark sexuality in herself of which Emma is so terrified. And while his cruelty inflames her lust, as well, it allows her to maintain some semblance of emotional independence and determination to hold to her original purpose. And while that purpose may frustrate any chance of romantic happiness for Emma and Hart, it deepens the sense of authenticity in her character, a consistency that allows me to believe that Emma really is determined to tend to her own security and safety, unwilling to fully depend on or trust anyone else. Though I realized the depth of Emma’s unhappiness, I admired the consistency of characterization and the dignity in that for a female character who claims to be determined. How refreshing that she did not magically trust in the power of the romantical penis to make her all better. And while Hart had quite a few stereotypical rakish characteristics, he rises above his type through the exercise of real intelligence – the ability to distinguish between truth and a lie, even if it takes him a little while (again, more realism!). This quality proves crucial, because short of a lot of sappy plot crises or a variety of emotional deus ex machinae, actual intelligence displayed by at least one character is necessary to overcome the emotional stubbornness of two bruised (even broken) hearts.
I want to return for a minute to that cover quote by Eloisa James. While the quote itself makes me sigh in frustration, it is not entirely inaccurate. Or rather, it is true that the more sensual aspects of the book are energized by both emotional and physical intensity. In a genre so familiar with sex and sexuality, I am often bored by the sex scenes in Romance. But here there are some of those pockets of surprising prose to give the same old new emphasis. At one point, for example, Emma’s “sex beat like a sharp, beautiful pulse.” Although I don’t think that phrase makes perfect sense logically, it worked for me emotionally and narratively, especially in conjunction with the next sentence: “Her limbs felt numb and insubstantial, as if she’d burned into nothingness.” That echoing of annihilation, this time in a very different way, still lonely but not alone, and its contrast with that very alive sexual heartbeat, captured all the yearning and frustration of this scene in which Emma watches Hart pleasure himself at her urging. The contest for sexual power between Emma and Hart drives much of their early love play, and it works well to mirror and magnify their various emotional battles (both within themselves and with each other). It is, indeed, hot, but since prurience and its potentially devastating consequences is such a strong theme in the book, that heat takes on an added dimension (ironizing the cover quote even more), both for the characters and the reader.
Although I have focused primarily on Hart and Emma, there is a rather extensive list of secondary characters, some of whom are very intriguing – like the Duke of Lancaster, who offers Emma an authentic friendship, and whose own story will be told next – and some of whom are frankly irritating (Marsh, for example, whose lechery was so one dimensional as to be uninteresting). A young man from Emma’s past, a would-be suitor whose religious zealotry is indistinguishable from madness, has a substantial part to play, although I wished his character had been drawn with more nuance, especially given his importance to the novel’s resolution. Yet there was also a particularly touching scene in which a young man stands up for Emma when she could have simply been left to the wolves. It was those more thoughtful scenes, along with the stronger aspects of the central relationship, that I enjoyed in A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure, and there were enough of them that I came away feeling that this novel is a solid B. Now I am looking forward to the adventures of the deceptively mysterious Lancaster – and to knowing how he got that impressive scar across his neck.