REVIEW: A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
Dear Ms. MacLean:
This is the first of your books I’ve read, and it’s the first in quite a while that I’ve considered applying the mistorical tag to. Given the muddled nature of Regency history in Romance, as well as my insecurity regarding how much I really know that’s true about the period, I decided against tagging the book that way. However, the internal debate is indicative of my overall response to A Rogue By Any Other Name, specifically my inability to feel immersed in the lives of its characters or their world. Despite some likeably competent writing and some truly entertaining scenes, I pretty much stayed at arm’s length from the book and felt unconvinced by the progression of the romance.
At 21, only six years after his parents’ tragic death, Michael, the young Marquess of Bourne lost all of his unentailed property in one hand of vingt-et-un. In a cruel irony, the man who took Bourne’s fortune was the man who helped him build it back over the past six years. So for nearly the past decade, Michael has been planning his revenge against the Viscount Langford, while building the wealth to re-aquire a stretch of land that, for Bourne, seemed to represent his future. As a partner of a notorious London gaming hell, The Fallen Angel, Bourne has the money to buy out most of his fellow aristocrats, but the deed to Falconwell remains elusive. Until, that is, Michael happens into a little bit of luck in Surrey.
At 28, Lady Penelope has had five proposals of marriage, none of which have resulted in a wedding. Her latest, from childhood friend Thomas Alles, was probably the easiest to reject, in part because after being spurned by a duke who went on to marry for love, Penelope would rather be a spinster than unhappily married. And now that her father, the Marquess of Needham and Dolby, has placed Falconwell in Penelope’s dowry, that chance has drastically increased. As much as Penelope would like to marry for the sake of her younger sisters’ matrimonial chances, she cannot imagine how that could ever happen. The one man she wished for has been gone from Surry for almost a decade, and for years her letters to him have gone unanswered (and lately unsent). So when, in the middle of the night, she decides to walk the neighboring land, Falconwell, in fact, she is absolutely stunned to come across Michael, who is equally surprised to see her.
Michael knows that if he lets Penelope go safely back to her home and bed, he will never again have a chance at Falconwell, so instead he basically abducts her to the long-abandoned Bourne estate, ensuring her “ruin” by ripping her dress practically in half and introducing her to the hot pre-marital sexxoring. Penelope, who had long been a young woman of propriety and respect for her parents and the many rules of society, is both incensed and tempted by Michael’s actions. Part of her has always wanted him to love her, and yet, as he makes clear that first night,
“I do not fool myself into thinking that the goal of marriage is happiness for one or both of the parties involved. My plan is to restore Falconwell’s lands to its manor and, unfortunately for you, it requires our marriage. I shan’t be a good husband, but I also haven’t the slightest interest in keeping you under my thumb.”
Still, it is difficult for Penelope to accept that her childhood friend Michael is now this seeming hard, uncaring man bent myopically on revenge, which establishes a difficult dynamic in their relationship early on: she consistently hopes for more, and Michael consistently shows her less. Until he doesn’t. But more on that later.
Some of my favorite books in the genre feature heroes who – through a mixture of traumatic loss and a diminished sense of self-worth – struggle with unaccustomed feelings of emotional dependence on the heroine and, in the process, end up hurting and disappointing her. One of the reasons those books are among my favorites is that the process of successfully redeeming such a man is both torturously painstaking and cathartically rewarding in direct proportion to the degree of alphahole behavior. And for almost the first half of A Rogue By Any Other Name, Michael is one serious alphahole, telling Penelope over and over again how incidental she is to his twin goals of Falconwell’s restoration and revenge against Langford, leaving her for days at a time, seducing and abandoning her without a word, etc. Standard alphahole behavior, in other words.
For her part, Penelope is tired of living in response to the whims of men, and if she cannot have the kind of happiness in marriage she once imagined, she can use the position her new marriage affords her to secure good matches for her sisters. She bargained that deal with Michael the first night he took her to his abandoned estate and convinces him that it will go much easier if they convince everyone they have a real love match. And unfortunately for Penelope, Michael is an incredibly good actor, which adds to Penelope’s confused feelings, her stubborn hopefulness, and the disappointment she feels when Michael reminds her, for the umpteenth time, how uncommitted he is emotionally to their marriage. It’s not until Penelope decides to take the freedom Michael’s disinterest offers her more seriously – making a late might trip to The Fallen Angel to explore Michael’s world – that her own marital fortunes change.
The character trajectories of Penelope and Michael are clear: as she becomes more independent of will, he becomes more connected emotionally, and thus they ultimately grow together. Because this is a Romance, we know they will end up happily and in love, so the main mystery in the story is how Michael will resolve his revenge plans, which implicate not only Langford, but also his son, Tommy, the mutual childhood friend of Michael and Penelope. Penelope, of course, does not want Tommy to suffer for Langford’s betrayal and Michael’s righteous anger, which creates a good deal of emotional tension between her and Michael, who is alternately jealous of his wife’s desire to protect Tommy and resigned to seeing himself as unworthy of Penelope.
Unfortunately for me, that tension around Michael’s revenge and his feelings for Penelope were just not enough to emotionally invest me in the story. Part of the issue was the way the two protags evolved. Penelope, for example, is initially introduced as this reasonable, proper young woman who has always put her responsibilities first and who even failed to stand up for herself when her thoughtless younger sister, Olivia, makes snide comments about her marriage prospects. And then suddenly she’s walking around outside – alone! – in the middle of the night, pursuing the strange light that turned out to be Michael’s lamp, demanding he take her home and then letting him have his wicked way with her. It wasn’t that I disliked her; it was more that I felt a fundamental lack of consistency in her character that made it difficult for me to trust her. I found myself annoyed at her constant waffling between dreaming of Michael falling in love with her and being let down by his alphaholery. And yet, despite the lack of consistency, she possessed a predictability that further distanced me. There was one point where Michael offered her an adventure, and I think I actually yelled out loud at the book, “Don’t say you want to go to the gaming hell!!!!!,” right before she did, indeed, say she wanted to go to the gaming hell.
Still, my bigger issues are with Michael, who spends at least 200 pages in alphahole mode, only to flip like the coin he gives Penelope as a marker when he promises to help her sisters. What facilitates the flip? Among other things, a late night therapy session at The Fallen Angel with his business partners, who tease and goad him, challenge and, when all else fails, brawl with him in service of getting him to see what he’s missing by spending all his nights at the hell. Now don’t get me wrong: this was one of the funniest, not to mention, truly unexpected, scenes in the book – all these tough guys gossiping like women and trying to get Michael in touch with his suppressed emotions. But the whole thing seemed kind of crazy to me, as well, both in its character and effectiveness. Like Penelope, I was taken aback at Michael’s change of heart, although unlike her, I was more unconvinced by the way it happened than by the fact that it did. After all, I expected that. Unfortunately, the process was unexpected in a way that made it feel more cartoonish than authentic to me. Even Michael’s backstory left me with questions: what happened to his entailed property while he disappeared from society? Didn’t he had many people who were counting on him to be responsible and take care of them? Did the Bourne manor house sit on Falconwell, and if so, why was it not part of the entailed property? And with so much property lost to Langford, why was it just Falconwell Michael wanted so badly? Part of me was never able to see Michael as the good guy, because I had no sense he felt there was anything wrong with taking off for a decade after he had lost what he perceived to be “his future.”
I think, in the end, it was this combination of clichéd predictability and eccentric inconsistency that kept me from loving the book. Where I wanted more unpredictability – in how the characters developed and reacted and evolved – I felt it was too superficial, and where I wanted consistency, I felt like I got artificial shifts that propelled the plot forward. Instead of the plot serving the characters, it felt to me as if the characters served the plot, and I think they really suffered for it. I felt this even extended to some of the historical details. For example, I’m certainly no Regency expert, but I understand that gambling and cards were quite popular among men and women. And yet one character in the book boisterously insists he won’t deign to play cards with a woman, and vingt-et-un is basically described as a man’s game, in order, I think, to ramp up the dramatic tension of the scene. And while I understand that the book is set in 1831, it still feels very much a Regency Romance to me.
I cannot say, though, that I would not read another MacLean historical, as the writing was likeable, and at some points, really quite nice, especially some of the descriptions of The Fallen Angel:
Penelope had never seen anything so stunning as this place, this marvelous, lush, place, filled with candlelight and color, teeming with people who called out obscene bets and rolled with laughter, who kissed their dice and cursed their bad luck.
Perhaps my reaction would have been different had I read the book containing Penelope’s backstory. I will soon find out, as I will likely read Pippa’s book, as her match is quite an interesting choice. For A Rogue By Any Other Name, though, a C.
I’m a wee bit confused… If Michael’s 21 and Penelope’s 28, isn’t it a bit weird that she’s always loved him, considering he’s been gone for a decade??? I suspect I’ve misunderstood something, which is a shame, because I was kinda excited by the idea of that age difference between the characters.
Also – Alphahole. Best new word ever.
@Anna Cowan: Alphahole was coined by Karina Bliss in her book “Here Comes the Groom”. Hilarious and touching. Anyhoodle, back to the regularly scheduled programming regarding Maclean’s book.
Um… this is a hit or miss author for me. It does sound like you had the same type of issue with the heroine that I had with paranormal I recently read. I think I shall pass. I am glad I read this review before going for it, though. I’d have been pretty annoyed if I had spent the money and ended up skipping whole chunks of text, which is what I did with the paranormal I am talking about.
@Anna Cowan: I haven’t read the book. What I got from the review was that he was 21 when he lost the fortune in a card game. Then he spent nearly a decade rebuilding his fortune/plotting revenge. So I assume that the hero is in his early thirties at the time the romance commences.
@Melissa – thank you!! I totally get it now. 21 when he lost the fortune THEN disappeared for a decade. LOL, here’s me wondering how a 17 year old could get away with pining for an 11 year old ;-)
@Anna Cowan: Sorry I didn’t make that clearer in the review!!
@Mireya: I think I’m in the minority on this book, though. Meoskop, for example, had some of the same issues I did, but ultimately liked the book a lot more: http://meoskop.blogspot.com/2012/02/review-rogue-by-any-other-name-by-sarah.html
I don’t know if I liked it better, I think I just liked it differently. I gave it a C too if you convert my tags. “you could do worse” and “mixed bags” are kind of my low B high C range. We certainly differed on Peneolope but my theory about that being because I read the first one is debunked. Old Latin Teacher didn’t like it & read the first.
I have seen this author admit on another blog that she doesn’t care about historical accuracy (she spoke up in defence of having a Regency heroine wear a red silk négligée), so I’m certain the “mistorical” tag would be well-earned!
Penelope’s backstory is in another book? I’m asking because I tried Maclean’s last book, Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart after it won praise both here and elsewhere, and ended up feeling lost with regard to the protagonists’ backstory since I had not read the previous two books. I was hoping that since A Rogue by Any Other Name was the start of a new series, I could read it without feeling similarly lost.
PS Also can I add that the cover of this book makes me hope fervently that the endless gown trend will run its course as quickly as possible?
@Janine: I knew the backstory of the hero/heroine of “Eleven Ways…” the book ended up being entirely different to what I was expecting and I can say I didn’t like the book at all. It was another one in which I skipped a lot of story as well… I just couldn’t get into it. I think my own expectations ruined it for me, though.
@Janine: Avon covers are the visual equivalent of a find/replace. I haven’t wanted to read one in forever because the sameyness leaves me thinking the stories will be bland copies as well.
@Janine: My recollection is that the Duke who jilted Penelope is one of the protagnists in an earlier book, so Penelope only appeared in passing
@Mireya: My main issue with Eleven Scandals was just that I felt I was missing half the story when the book started. I think I quit early on, around the scene when the heroine’s brother showed up and there was all this tension between him and the hero over past events. On top of the fact that the hero and heroine seemed to have a bit of a history, it served to make me feel that I should read the other books in the series first. I did like the author’s voice, and would like to try her again sometime.
@Ridley: I particularly dislike the voluminous dresses because they make the heroines look like little girls playing dress up in their mother’s clothes. And when it’s combined with a suggestive element like cleavage or a clinch or what have you, I start to feel even more uneasy with that childlike image.
@JenniferH: Thanks, that’s good to know.
I haven’t read this one, though I’ve read and enjoyed some of the author’s other work. Given Robin Reader’s review, I now suspect that one of the things I enjoy about Ms. MacLean’s work is its “eccentric inconsistency.”
But remember, that’s a crazy duck lady perspective.
Wow, I had read another review yesterday that graded this one 2 grades higher. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.
I have found this author to be a bit inconsistent for me as well. I loved her book Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, and I found her next one Ten something to something something something something to be okay, not as engrossing or enjoyable, but still okay. However, I really did not like the Eleven Scandals to Start… something something something. (What is it with these long, overly alliterative titles that don’t really MEAN anything.)
I think Michael appeared in one of the previous books and gambled away his inheritance to one of the heroes in said previous book. (I am pretty sure this happened, or maybe this plot was just used in some other book.)
Historical accuracy/inaccuracy does not bother me overly much. I can enjoy a good romantic romp with slight inaccuracies in dress, language, etc. Just make sure the plot and characters are engaging and the story makes sense!
how can I search on your web page?
I enjoyed this book. It had some very good secondary characters. The banter between Penelope and her sisters was quite funny as were the “Fallen Angel’s” conversations.
I didn’t mind Michael’s alpha behavior as much as you and Jane. I just didn’t understand why Michael felt he couldn’t correspond with Penelope. Yes, he was embarrassed, but he had known Penelope all his life. I also thought it was peculiar that they didn’t know each other’s favorite pudding. Wouldn’t it be the same as when they were children?
@ Janet: Unless I missed something, he never lost the manor, only money and one piece of property. He’s gotten rich again, so the property in the dowry is the last piece of the puzzle.
@Stacey Irish-Keffer: Michael didn’t appear in a previous book – only Penelope.
I loved her first book (9 Rules). It was fantastic. So much so that she became an auto-buy for me. I have bought all four of her books and now realised that after 9 rules she has pretty much been either ok or a miss. New author’s curse perhaps ? You put your best work in your first book, labouring on it for years. Subsequent books never manage to live up to the first.
Strangely though, after reading the preview chapter I am looking forward to her next book. I liked cross in this book here plus i always love a geeky hero.
Re: Penelope’s back story.
Penelope’s back story is in Eleven Scandals to Start…, which belongs to what I thought was an entirely different Maclean series. There isn’t much in the previous book that you don’t read in A Rogue… except for a short scene in which Penelope speaks with the other heroine and reveals that she isn’t excited about her engagement. To be honest, I didn’t even realize she was the same character in both novels.