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Let me warn those who plan to read Mary Jo Putney's The Rake that this is a long novel, but let me then proceed to assure my fellow readers that reading The Rake is not only worthwhile, but absolutely essential. There's a reason for the length of this novel, it's that Mary Jo Putney captures every detail and aspect of the life of a rake and what happens when he is given a chance to reform. There is the personal struggle, the ups and the downs, and the ultimate triumph -- and Putney takes us through every step with such perfect writing and insight.
Reginald Davenport is known as the Despair of the Davenports, but he doesn't mind it so much. He was also set to inherit his uncle's title (Earl of Wargrave) and estate, but, when a closer relative is discovered and inherits what Reginald had expected to be his, it sends our dear rake on a downward spiral. The story could end here, and it does in most other stories -- often, the (dis)inherited party becomes the villain and meets a terrible end -- but Reggie's cousin, the new Earl, must have sensed something good in Reggie, and gives him an opportunity to turn his life around.
And so our rake becomes the hero of his own story of redemption.
When Strickland was given to Reggie, the new earl hadn't realised how deeply relevant the estate was to his cousin. Strickland was Reggie's childhood home, and one filled with many of his memories -- both happy and painful. From this point forward, a lot is revealed about Reggie and the late earl -- and, as I was reading through the revelations, I couldn't help but think that Reggie could have turned out differently had a different relative raised him.
Reality was a demon on his shoulder, whispering that sobriety was a dubious goal, hardly worth the effort it was causing him. All men drank, and Reggie had always held his liquor better than most. What, after all, had he done that was so serious, except be tempted to thrash a brat who had seriously misbehaved?
He fought that demon, and another that whispered that he was doomed to fail, so why stretch his failure out any longer? What made him think he could ever succeed at anything?
- p. 291
I was tempted to pose the same question presented in Wicked: Are rakes born rakes? What I could glean from Putney's writing, and from Reggie's history, it seems to be an inevitable part of a gentleman's life -- but the choice to stay a rake for the rest of one's days, or to move forward to the next stage of one's life. Reggie's father and maternal uncle also had to battle with their demons and alcoholism, and both managed to win over their weaknesses -- now it's Reggie's turn.
What I like about Reggie is that he holds himself responsible and doesn't blame anyone for his current situation. I found it endearing and heartbreaking to hear him talk about how society perceives him. He's accepted his rakish reputation and has used it very cleverly to his advantage. (Read: the confrontation between Julian and his father regarding Meredith, Chapter 22)
He smiled faintly. "How nice to have only one sin, singular. Mine come in scores."
- p. 58
The Rake isn't just Reggie's story -- there's also Alys Weston, who happens to be Strickland's very efficient steward. Lady Alys, as she is known in Strickland, is the best thing to happen to the estate -- she's managed to turn the property into one of Wargrave's most prosperous assets. Lady Alys is a mystery: how did a lady become the steward of Strickland? Putney does an amazing, amazing job of revealing pieces of Alys's previous life while simultaneously building up her current life.
When I discovered Alys's real identity, I couldn't help but admire her for her courage to break free from her former life -- to give up her life of wealth and comfort -- and build a new one. She worked her way up from governess to steward, and she did it all on her own. But Alys isn't perfect -- she has terrible insecurities about her looks (her height, in particular). When Putney allows us to peer into her mind, Alys's self-talk is very negative -- but I'm glad Reggie was there to help her realise just how beautiful she is, inside and out.
Though she was't the sort of woman a man would desire, at least she wasn't really ugly. Her complexion was too tan for fashion, but her features were regular and might have been called handsome if she were a man. It was just that her face, like the rest of her, was too large. She stood five feet nice and a half inches in her stockings, and was as tall or taller than most of the men at Strickland.
Having undone the snarls, she began brushing out her hair. Back in the days when a fortune endowed her with spurious desirability, her heavy tresses had been called chestnut. Now that she worked for a living, it was merely brown, a color of no particular distinction.
- p. 14
I loved the contrast between Lady Alys and Reggie, but I loved the similarities between them even more. Reggie struggles to control his alcohol addiction, and Alys struggles with her self-esteem. At the heart of our hero and heroine is the longing for acceptance and love -- to be valued and found worthy as they are.
Chemistry implies that something within Alys reacts to something within Reggie and something happens -- often, its sparks and fireworks -- but, for our hero and heroine, there was no such grand reaction. The attraction was evident from the very beginning -- something within Alys was drawn to something within Reggie -- the bond formed between the two is something greater and more vital. It's a partnership between owner and steward. It's a companionship between friends. It's an intimacy between man and woman.
The Rake is often listed in many readers' all-time favourite historical romance novels*, and now I understand why.
The Rake is the sequel to Mary Jo Putney's debut novel, The Diabolical Baron, and is part of the Davenport Family duology. To find out more about Mary Jo Putney and her books, click below:
*It was #22 in the first-ever Top 100 Romances Poll by All About Romance in 1998. It was #15 in the second Top 100 Romances Poll in 2000. #75 in 2004 . #68 in 2007. #91 in 2010. #54 in the most current poll in 2013.