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.