“Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake”

“Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake”

by Sarah McClean

Avon Books (releases April 2010)

Category: Regency Romance

One of the best parts of having a sister who works for a prominent woman’s magazine is that you get all the swag.  When my sister pulled out an advance reader of “Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake” over dinner one night, I did a little happy dance when then jumped in.

First off, let me say that this book has me split in two.  I don’t love it.  In fact, there’s a lot to dislike about it.  That being said, I couldn’t really stop reading it either.

My first major issue comes before you even crack the cover.  I appreciate alliteration as much as the next girl, but naming your book “Nine Rules to Break when Romancing a Rake” seems to be pushing it a little to me.  It’s long.  Like tongue twistingly too long.  It also just smacks of a series (just checked on the author’s website and apparently the next one will be called “Ten Ways to be Adored When Landing a Lord.”  Please…).

From here on out let this book be known as “Nine Rules.”  Thank you.

“Nine Rules” follows Lady Calpernia Hartwell, a woman who might as well be walking around the ton with “spinster” rubber stamped on her forehead.  Ten years before the start of the book, she has an encounter with Gabriel St. John, the Marquess of Ralston in a garden after a disastrous evening during her first Season.  Ralston says a nice thing or two to here, and suddenly she’s fallen madly in love with him.

Fast forward ten years later and we well into the spinsterhood of Calpernia or “Callie” (MacLean tries to convince the reader that this would be an acceptable nickname for a woman in Regency England, and I personally am not buying it).  After discovering that each of her siblings think she’s passive and dull, Callie decides to create a list of daring and adventurous things to do.  The list, which is preposterous, includes kissing someone passionately, fencing, gambling in a gentleman’s club, and attending a duel.

For some misguided, not entirely understandable reason, Callie decides that the first thing she’ll strike off her list is the kiss.  Also perplexing is her decision that the kiss should come from one of the most disreputable rakes in the ton, Lord Ralston.  She shows up at the man’s doorstep, gets mistaken for his mistress, and then finds herself in his bedroom.  The pair of them strike a somewhat awkward bargain: he’ll kiss her if she’ll help bring his possibly illegitimate sister he just learned existed out into society.

Naturally, shenanigans ensue.

As I’ve said before, I had major problems with this book.  The book is entirely based around the plain Jane heroine, but I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what was so unmarriageable about her.  We’re told she’s plain.  We’re told she is voluptuous (never a problem with Regency heroines).  We’re also told that she wears a lace cap.  Well, that must be it because I can’t understand why the daughter of one of the wealthiest, most powerful earls in all of England is so odious that even the golddiggers have pretty much given up by the time she’s 28.

Another major stumbling block is the whole premise that gets us into this mess of a plot line.  Callie’s decision to go to Ralston’s house and proposition him sets all the action off.  When she wakes up the next morning, all sorts of questions she probably should have asked the night before buzz through her head:

“What had she been thinking traipsing off in the middle of the night to Ralston House?  Had she honestly approached the Marquess of Ralston in his bedchamber?  Had she really made an overture toward London’s most notorious rake?”

Well, yeah.  You did.   And tell me just how likely that is?

Here’s the deal.  I don’t have issues with romance authors taking a little liberty with the way that society worked.  The best heroines are the ones who defy society and charm you into liking them in the process.  They’re dynamic so you don’t really care that there’s no way they would do or say half the things written about them in a book.

Callie isn’t a Too Stupid to Live heroine, but she’s certainly doing some dumb things in this book.  Going to a tavern by herself?  Breaking into a gentleman’s club and allowing herself to be deflowered in the middle of a hardly private room?  I don’t think so.  There is a limit to the bounds of my imagination for Regency heroines, and I’m not convinced that a respectable woman from one of the wealthiest titled families in England would doing anything so stupid in her wildest dreams.

And Callie isn’t the kind of girl an author can sell me on.   She’s not dynamic, she’s not particularly arresting, and I certainly wasn’t rooting for her.  Since I didn’t buy Callie as a strong character I didn’t feel generous enough to put up with MacLean tossing aside the societal conventions that would have held her down.

What it really boils down to is that it’s a big problem when you don’t like the woman you’re stuck with for 350 pages.  For a plain Jane or an out-of-her-time heroine to really work, they need to completely win a reader over.  Callie just  doesn’t stand out.  We’re asked to believe that a gorgeous, deliciously disreputable hellion of the ton would fall madly in love with her.  It seems a bit of a stretch especially since we’ve been told over and over again how plain and unappealing she is.  Naturally, Callie can’t quite believe it either.

“How many times had she told herself that Ralston was not for her?  That she was too plain, too plump, too inexperienced and uninteresting to capture his interest?  How many times had she been warned?  By her family, her friends, his mistress, for God’s sake.  And yet she had allowed herself to believe that the fantasy could be real.  That, one day, the world had tilted just so on its axis and Ralston had fallen for her.”

I find few things less appealing as a reader than the “I don’t understand why you love me because I think I’m ugly, but I love you so I’ll just kind of go with it” plot line.  I strongly believe that the best matches are between equal partners, and equal partners don’t exist unless each person in the relationship understands what they bring to the table.  What MacLean has basically done here is set up a hero worship scenario.  Callie worships Ralston from up close rather than afar.  Almost nothing has changed in the dynamic of their relationship.

Even in the land of happily ever after, how exactly is a marriage like that supposed to last?

All of my issues aside, this was far from the worst romance I’ve ever read.  MacLean actually had some tender and touching moments that made me really appreciate her as a writer.  That, essentially, is what saved the book.  Despite my frustrations with the heroine, I had trouble putting it down.  And that, as you all know, is the best recommendation a romance writer can get.

Grade: C


The Best

Every romance reader has a list of the best and worst books she’s read.  Sometimes they follow what’s popular.  Sometimes they just grab you for some inexplicable reason and stay with you.  Here’s a list of my favorite books…for now.

The Best

“Angles Fall” by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts is one of my favorite authors, and that’s hardly surprising considering the fact that she’s dominated the romance world for so long.  I actually didn’t start reading her books until about a year and a half ago when I picked up “Midnight Bayou” in part because of a strange fascination I have with New Orleans (a place I’ve never been, mind you).  After “Midnight Bayou” I ripped through a whole stack of her other books.  “Angels Fall” was one of them.

What sets “Angels Fall” apart from her other books for me is Brody.  I have issues with a lot of alpha male heroes, but Brody transcends most of what annoys me.  Yes, he’s gruff and stubborn and would probably be annoying as hell in real life, but the important thing is that he’s flawed and that makes him seem all the more real.

I’m not a fan of the perfect hero school of romance writing.  No, a scar on his left cheek from a duel he fought at 21 is not enough of a flaw to make him stand out.  These have to be deep seeded personality quirks that force the reader to think twice about whether the heroine should actually  end up with him.  The author then has to work to show why this couple should be together.  When the realization moment comes (the “oh wait, I think I love you even though I shouldn’t” moment), I feel so much more invested in the relationship because I’ve seen the characters have to work and grow to come to this point.  Brody sells this book for me.

“Lord of Scoundrels” by Loretta Chase

This is generally recognized as the gold standard of historical romance.  What makes “Lord of Scoundrels” so jaw-droppingly amazing to read is that you not only have a strong heroine and an alpha male hero, but you can almost see the sparks between them jumping off the page.  The secret’s in the dialogue, my friends.

A lot of authors tell their readers that their leading lady is witty and smart, and we kind of just roll over and take it on faith.  Loretta Chase actually proves it to us.  From the very first meet in an antique shop, Jessica is sharp and smart.  And she’s not afraid to let us all know it.  The dialogue crackles with wit and charm, and it’s actually believable that Jessica could go toe to to with Dain.

Plus, who can resist a heroine who intentionally causes her hero bodily harm?

“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

A doorstop of a book, “Outlander” was one of the first romances that was not a sweet Kensington I ever read.  I remember sneakily reading my copy under my desk in my high school math class.  I’m pretty sure I spent most of those math classes with a bright red face because of the fairly frequent sex scenes.  Ah to be so young and impressionable again…

Jamie and Claire will always be one of my favorite romance couples.  Not only does the book have time travel, plenty of Scotsmen, and a good helping of sex, it’s also got that magic formula of a great heroine and a dashing, warm hero.  I’ve given it to a few people as a starter romance despite its and have never met anyone (except my father) who didn’t regret turning the last page.

“Bet Me” by Jennifer Crusie

For some reason I avoided reading contemporaries for a long time.  After reading, “Bet Me” by Jennifer Crusie I have no idea why I waited so long.  From the above reviews, it should be pretty obvious that a great heroine and a hero I can actually imagine in the flesh really get me while I’m reading.  Min and Cal are another one of those pairings.  The dialogue is sharp and the characters have real lives with actual problems.  Plus the book has the best wedding scene I’ve ever read.

So those are my four favorites at the moment.  What are you favorites?  What makes a book grab you pull you in?  Who are your favorite couples?

Coming soon, my worst books.  I’m culling through my reading lists and narrowing things down as we speak.