Okay, so this book was actually closer to 4 stars until about the last thirty pages.
A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is the first book in Suzanne Enoch’s latest series, Scandalous Brides. Though, having glanced at the back covers of the other two, I suspect it would be better named the Tantalus Club series, since that seems to be the common thread yoking them all together. What is the Tantalus Club? Precisely the question that Diane Benchley wants you asking. The lovely widow has just returned from abroad, where her bankrupt husband died, leaving her with a mountain of debts to settle. She managed to do it by selling off almost all of his unentailed property except one location, a home in London. That, she gets into her own hands with a bit of clever forgery — illegal, but deserved, she feels, since her husband ignored her and then left her with nothing. She intends to transform the house into an upscale gaming hall, staffed entirely by women — but she needs some cash to get the enterprise started. So she approaches one of the wealthiest men she knows — Oliver Warren, Marquis of Haybury, who also happens to be her ex-lover. She and Oliver met in Vienna just after her husband’s death. They entered into a torrid affair, but after two weeks, he fled back to England, leaving her heartbroken. Why go to him? Because she has a sworn statement from another man labeling him as a cheat, an accusation which could ruin him. Oliver agrees to loan Diane the money — but with some hesitations and stipulations.
This book actually reminds me a lot of another Enoch book, The Rake — the focus on wagering, the antagonistic former lovers reuniting, the odd living circumstances — but it is, on the whole, more tightly plotted than that book. The characters’ decisions and reasoning, on the whole, make better sense, and they at least seem aware of their own hypocrisies and ulterior motives. It lacks some of the sharp comedy, though, which is why I still think I like The Rake better, but A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes is still thoroughly enjoyable. Diane is smart and savvy, and if she hangs onto her belligerent dislike for Oliver rather longer than I expected — well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Oliver really has to work to get her affection and her trust back, and to his credit, he realises that. Ultimately, you really do get the sense that they suit each other very well — they’re both far from perfect people, but they’re imperfect in similar ways and in ways that work well together. Diane’s club meets with both success and condemnation, as is probably to be expected (and here it also reminds me of Kathryn Schmidt’s A Game of Scandal, another romance where the heroine runs a gaming club, and of Lisa Kleypas’s Then Came You, which features another deliberately scandalous heroine), and she has to negotiate both her business and her rediscovered romance. Trouble comes when the brother of her dead husband makes a play for her property — and Diane has to choose to trust Oliver and rely on him to help sort things out. It’s a good plot, not standard fare, and the characters are, if a little bit brittle and sharp with each other, at least unusual and well-rendered.
All of that said, there are some flaws. Enoch seems to have discovered the word “chit” and refuses to let it go; it got distractingly repetitive usage in this book. More significantly, however — remember how I said the plot hung together better than that in The Rake? That was true until the last thirty pages. Diane and Oliver’s plot to entrap Anthony makes… almost no sense. I had already thought of about six better ones before it was revealed. It sort of seemed like the convolutions of the plot got away from Enoch, and she wasn’t quite sure how to tie them back together. The solution is haphazard at best, and if we’re meant to believe this is the best two very clever people could come up with? It definitely falls short.