This is one of my all-time favourite romance novels, and not for any really good reason. The book has some very definite flaws (the embarrassing cover being only one of them), and yet — I flipping love it.
Georgiana and Tristan hate each other, in that tremendously obvious way which indicates they’re really in love with each other and have been for some time. What Georgie has kept secret for six years is that they were lovers, briefly, before Georgie found out that he’d bet on winning a kiss and a stocking from her and then lied about it, which led to their parting and feud. For years, Georgie’s been worried that Tristan might expose her as a “ruined” woman — but nothing’s come of it. Still, she doesn’t feel she can marry anyone else, because she can neither reveal herself as a non-virgin nor deceive a potential husband by marrying him when she knows he has expectations of that virginity. Oh, here, I’ll let her explain:
“Why should I?”
“Because you’re blaming me for something that –”
“I could marry someone who only wants my money in an instant,” she said in a low, tight voice. “I’ve already told you I won’t marry for that reason. And I can not marry for love.”
“Someone who loved you would understand.”
Stopping her, cheeks alarmingly pale, Georgiana snatched her hand from his grip. “I would never trust anyone who said he cared for me. I’ve heard it before.”
My empathy, Georgie. Six years later, Tristan hasn’t married, either, but it’s becoming a dire need, as his father’s debts have left his estate extremely strapped for cash; as such, he’s on the hunt for an heiress. He’s looking at Amelia St. John, who by all appearances is right much of a bubble-head, but has an enormous portion and is herself hunting for a title, so that would solve problems pretty neatly — Tristan just can’t quite resign himself to yoking himself to her for the rest of his life. Amidst this, Georgie and her friends Evelyn and Lucinda decide to impose some good behaviour on the errant men of England, and each determines to find a man to teach a lesson in manners to. Georgie, tellingly, chooses Tristan as her target. She aims to pay him back for hurting her years earlier, and decides the best way to get herself in proximity is to offer herself as a companion for his maiden aunts, one . This (apparently) allows her to live in the same house as Tristan and his brothers without impropriety.
I knock a bit off the rating because the book has some elements that stretch even the credulity of a romance novel. Actually, the entire conceit of the novel doesn’t make that much sense — both in the “lesson-giving” idea and in Georgie’s becoming the aunts’ companion when she’s still clearly on the Marriage Mart, hardly a retired spinster. There’s not a lot of logic there. And the book’s eventual resolution makes even less sense in some ways. But I forgive the book all of that because the characters are just so much fun. Just like Beatrice and Benedick, Georgie and Tristan “never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them”. Georgie’s also fond of treading on Tristan’s toes and breaking fans on him. Their conversations crackle with lightning wit and sexual desire, the constant parry, thrust, and feint of two people who know just how to hurt each other but don’t always want to. Enoch clearly conveys their familiarity with each other and the extremely tangled emotions involved in their situation.
I also appreciate the idea of a non-virgin heroine, someone finding her way back to love after a broken heart. Despite the ire she aims at him, Georgie’s never been able to get Tristan out of her head or her heart. Part of the challenge of the book, for him, is to prove himself worthy of her — to earn her trust, which he seriously fumbled on the first attempt. And so I enjoy that double-message that the book provides — that the hero has to make some effort, has to pay the penalty for his own bone-headedness and then make an honest new start, and that the heroine overcomes her own hesitancy and have the bravery to take down defensive walls (to let in the very man who prompted their construction in the first place). These aren’t the most typical tropes for historical romances, but I always enjoy seeing them in play.
And then, there are the Carroways — Tristan’s family, four brothers (two of whom we’ll see as the central figures in later books), all with fantastic personalities. I love when a writer can convincingly create a family atmosphere, and Enoch has a triumph in the Carroways — they’re probably second only to the Bridgertons when it comes to my favourite romance novel clans. Their fraternal patter is natural and engaging, which makes them a whole lot of fun to watch in action.
All of these factors make The Rake a delightful read, despite the somewhat bizarre conceits of the plot. Skate on through those, and you have a book populated with wonderful, witty characters, unbridled and effervescent. Not the deepest of reads, perhaps, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.