I read and enjoyed Joanna Shupe’s first historical romance, The Courtesan Duchess, and in my review, said that while it wasn’t without flaws, it was one of the strongest débuts I’d read in a while. I read or listened to the two books that followed it (The Harlot Countess and The Lady Hellion, and while I think the first is the strongest, I nonetheless had marked Ms Shupe as an author I’d be keen to read again.
For her new Knickerbocker Club series, she has shifted her focus from the rarefied atmosphere of the English ton in the Regency period to the equally exclusive high-society of late 1880s New York, where the social rules and customs were just as restrictive as anything to be found across the Pond. Known as the Gilded Age, this is a time of rapid scientific and industrial progress; the economy is booming, the rich are incredibly rich and getting richer – although just like in Britain, there is still a huge amount of social injustice and a massive gap between the rich and the poor.
Elizabeth Sloane and her brother William are real blue-bloods whose ancestry can be traced back to the earliest settlers. Yet, as was often the case in England, too, while their lineage is impeccable, their finances are not. The siblings are orphans and William runs their family business, the Northeast Railroad Company. Elizabeth has of late begun to suspect that William is keeping something from her and that all is not well, but being rather a typical male of the period, he dismisses her concerns and, not in so many words, tells her not to worry her pretty little head about it. Given that attitude, it’s not surprising that William refuses point-blank even to consider Elizabeth’s going into business herself. It’s not at all the done thing for a well-bred lady, and he is adamant that she is not going to risk her reputation in such a manner. But Lizzie is just as strong-willed as her brother, and decides that, if he will not back the investment firm she wants to start, then she will ask someone else. Knowing of William’s friendship with a number of powerful businessmen, she decides to seek out one of them – wealthy industrialist and steel magnate Emmett Cavanaugh – with the intention of obtaining his financial backing for her scheme.
Cavanaugh most definitely comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Born in the New York slums, he has clawed his way up by fair means and foul to become one of the most feared and respected businessmen in the city. But the unexpected visit by one of New York’s most pampered princesses throws him somewhat, especially when she makes her pitch and asks him to help her to set up her brokerage business. In spite of himself, Emmett is intrigued and, seeing the chance to get one over on her brother – whom he dislikes intensely – offers her a deal.
That deal, in which Lizzie must prove her head for business, also includes dinner at Delmonico’s, the city’s most exclusive restaurant. Knowing of the gossip that is likely to ensue at the two of them appearing together, Lizzie is a little wary at first – but agrees, surprised at how much she wants to spend some time with this intriguing, attractive man. In fact, the surprise is mutual, because Emmett finds himself just as fascinated by Lizzie, who is unlike any of the women with whom he normally associates while at the same time completely different from the ladies of the ‘Knickerbocker’ set. In many ways, Magnate is your typical, “bad-boy-meets-posh-girl” sort of romance in which the roguish, self-made man is seen as a threat to the closed ranks of so-called “good” society. Even though he has more money than he knows what to do with and the prospect of making much more, Emmett is nouveau riche, an upstart nobody in the eyes of the social elite, and is so far beneath the heroine in status as to be looked upon in much same way as a dog turd in the gutter.
But what makes the book stand out from so many of its ilk has a lot to do with both its setting – which is an unusual one for an historical – and the way Ms Shupe so perfectly describes the world inhabited by her characters. Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Custom of the Country will recognise it immediately; its opulence, its snobbery, its zest for life and thirst for the new – and its innate conservatism when it comes to what women could and couldn’t do. Lizzie is a great character; a spirited young woman who wants more from life than just a socially advantageous marriage and who wants to use her talents in a fulfilling manner, she is nonetheless a woman of her time and not one of those “feisty”, contrary-on-purpose heroines who make me want to tear my hair out. Emmett is probably the more strongly drawn character of the two principals; intelligent, ambitious, and ruthless, he’s built himself up from nothing and doesn’t want to look back on his old life and recall what it’s cost him to get where he is. The fact that he sees nothing wrong in Lizzie’s ambitions only adds to his appeal and his determination to protect her, while perhaps a bit caveman-like at times, is undeniably attractive.
The initial spark of attraction between Lizzie and Emmett smoulders nicely and the romance is well developed, giving the reader the sense of a real and strong emotional connection between them. One of my criticisms of Ms Shupe’s previous books was that there were too many side-plots going on to the detriment of the main story; so I was pleased to see that her focus here is very firmly on her central couple and their relationship. Her research into the period has clearly been extensive and there is enough information included about stocks, shares and the financial markets for it to be convincing, but not so much that it overshadows other aspects of the story. Overall, Magnate is a great read and in fact, for the first three-quarters of the book, I was sure I was reading a DIK. Unfortunately, however, the overly contrived misunderstandings and miscommunications that appear in the final few chapters knocked the final grade down a little. Even so, Ms Shupe is doing a great job of cementing her place among the new crop of historical romance authors and I’ll definitely be looking out for future books in this series.