A Gentleman at Heart
“Suspend disbelief” is the rule of thumb when reading fiction. Sometimes, however, I run across a book that asks me not merely to suspend my disbelief but to strangle it to death. Unhappily, A Gentleman at Heart is one of those. An unbelievable plot, unappealing characters, and unacceptable writing added up to a most unpleasant reading experience.
Prizewinning pugilist Keanan Milroy is moving into higher social circles, and he’s got a secret agenda: he’s out to ruin his father, the Duke of Reckester, the man who impregnated and then abandoned Keanan’s mother, forcing her into a short and miserable life as a prostitute. Keanan’s been using his prize money to buy up all of the property and assets that Reckester’s been forced to sell so he can settle his gaming debts. After winning what he swears is his last fight, Keanan comes to the rescue of Miss Wynne Bedegrayne, who’s being assaulted by the enraged father of the girl she’s trying to save from a life of forced prostitution. Keanan learns that Wynne is being courted by his (legitimate) half-brother Drake Fawks, Lord Nevin and heir to Reckester, and decides to further his revenge by ruining her, thereby making her unfit to be Drake’s wife.
Wynne’s father Sir Thomas has been pushing her to accept Nevin’s suit; she should have married before her sister Devona, but is still single at twenty-three. When she encounters Keanan again at a party, her interest is piqued, and when her scheming aunt Molly (who improbably insists Keanan address her as “Aunt Moll”) sets up a meeting between them, the kiss Keanan steals stirs a longing in Wynne she thought she’d suppressed. She knows her family would prefer Drake to Keanan, but she’s oppositional enough to continue seeing Keanan. Their trysts lead to an explosive passion, and Keanan comes dangerously close to caring for the woman who’s supposed to be the instrument of his revenge.
I was not able to care for this couple. Wynne is so involved in her cause, which she calls the Benevolent Sisterhood, that she pays no heed to the precarious situation in which she finds herself. Moreover, she’s got a secret that she’s kept from her family for years, one that, if she’d confided in her father or brothers, could have been taken care of with little fuss. Her behavior struck me not as selfless and courageous, but decidedly not smart and very shortsighted. As for Keanan, his entrance into the highest levels of the ton, which sets in motion much of the plot, was unbelievable, and I had trouble swallowing anything beyond that point. I understood and accepted Keanan’s hatred for Reckester, but the uneasy truce that developed between him and Drake, rivals on more than one score, stretched my credulity beyond the breaking point.
Wynne’s family is a fixed presence throughout. There are constant mentions of her siblings, and several of them are important secondary characters. Series about a family are all well and good (think of Lindsey’s Malory books, or Stephanie Laurens’s Bar Cynster series), but too much attention paid to previous or future starring characters detracts from the book in hand. There’s a scene in this book that serves no purpose other than to set up a supporting character for her own story; it distracted me from the present tale, and neither Wynne nor Keanan even appears in the scene. Talk about pulling me out of the story! Also, the numerous points of view, especially that of Reckester’s “I love you but I hate you” wife (who, in a particularly tasteless scene, interrupts her husband nailing one of the maids in the front hall), shifts the spotlight away from Keanan and Wynne, who are supposed to be the central focus.
I can pinpoint the moment this book slipped from a D to an F in my mind. It happened on p. 307 when I read “‘No!’ she hissed.” I tried hissing the word “no”; it can’t be done. This was the last of many straws when it came to the clumsy writing style. At one point the author writes: “There was a maniacal cast to [the villain’s] face, which craved Keanan’s death.” Can a face crave something? There’s title confusion, one of my pet peeves: the author repeatedly refers to the duke’s family as “the Reckesters,” when they more properly would be “the Fawkses.” Much of the dialogue is wooden and unnatural; several of the characters slip back and forth between talking in dialect and speaking in stilted tones, with no rhyme or reason. And I have to mention the decidedly un-historical aspect of some of the characters’ names: Devona, Amara, Rae. They seemed more Southern California to me than Regency London.
About that villain: This guy comes out of left field. There is absolutely no warning, no hint, until about halfway through the book, that there even is a bad guy, so the story shifts from straight historical to historical romantic suspense, which further jarred me. And when he does make his appearance, it’s straight out of Central Casting – “one homicidal maniac, coming right up!” A clumsy finish, with an incredible resolution, had me closing the book on a sigh – not of satisfaction, but of relief that it was finally over.