A Courtesan's Guide to Getting Your Man
If ever there was an absolute necessity to ignore the title, this is it. I saw the title, and I thought, “Ooh, light, frothy, funny story by two humongously competent authors! Bring it on.” I scored 50% with that assumption: Ms. Bradley and Ms. Donovan work magic, but frothy this book is not.
It does have its amusing moments, mainly during the contemporary sections (written by Ms. Donovan) featuring Piper Chase-Pierpont, a Boston museum curator whose life is not going well. Her parents are demanding health nuts, she hasn’t had a relationship in years, her lips are dyed blue from a pen accident, her job is on the line, and she is sitting on a historical bombshell.
Piper has accidentally discovered the hidden diaries of Ophelia Harrington, the iconic 19th-century abolitionist who is the subject of Piper’s next (and potentially last) exhibit. The diaries reveal that prior to her life in Boston, Ophelia was an English courtesan, but how on earth can Piper tell Bostonians that their folk heroine was a complete tart? But after vacillation and crying jags galore, the diaries inspire Piper to exhibit them, and makes many personal changes in the process.
Piper’s blossoming and romance (with an old university crush) are touching (although there’s something wonky about the timeline), and I’m always happy to read about insecure women who grow into their own skin. But Piper’s story can’t hold a candle to Ophelia’s, which is elegantly interwoven with Piper’s and which completely blew me out of the water. Told by Ms. Bradley through Ophelia’s diary, Ophelia Harrington progresses from a reckless, thoughtless eighteen-year-old to a mature thirty-year-old woman. She makes some disastrous mistakes along the way, but the woman at the end of the diaries is a true heroine, compelling, intelligent, and totally admirable. And man, is her romance ever satisfying.
The authors take the bondage theme very seriously (and possibly a wee bit too unsubtly). Besides Piper’s internally and externally-imposed restrictions, Ophelia feels trapped by her aunt and uncle’s demands to marry her off; her decision to become a courtesan is pretty abrupt, but I could see how this particular teenager could dive headfirst into a totally different life, and become stronger for it. Ophelia’s quest for personal freedom inspires her later abolitionist work – and you see how I’m talking about Ophelia like she was real? That’s a character.
However, I’m going to take a moment to complain about the title, and I can do so legitimately because it actually features in the epilogue as the title given to Ophelia’s republished diaries. Uh, getting a man was exactly not the point of Ophelia’s self-emancipation, although it did lead to Piper getting her man (as well as an exceedingly hot sensuality rating that is not exaggerated), and I’d bet that Ophelia had actually existed, and she saw the title of her diaries from heaven, she’d hate it. (And yes, there I am again pretending she’s real. I wish.) Quite frankly, it sort of ruined the happy glow.
But aside from that, plus a few other nitpicky details, Ms. Bradley and Ms. Donovan have clearly put thought and passion into their efforts, resulting in a moving, exhilarating book and one of the most fascinating heroines to appear this year. Double brava.