Rakes and Radishes
Rakes and Radishes is Susanna Ives’ début novel, and it’s one of the most unusual historical romances I’ve read.
The author has very successfully turned one of the most commonly-used tropes in the genre upside-down and inside-out. The story of the hardened rake who eventually settles down with the love of his life to become a doting husband and responsible member of the community is reversed, as the hero travels in the opposite direction. He begins the book as a loveable and kindly gentleman farmer – and later plunges into a life of dissipation when his anger and frustration at both himself and the heroine become too much for him to bear.
Thomas, the Earl of Kesseley has been in love with Henrietta Watson for as long as he can remember. Henrietta knows how he feels about her, but although he’s her dearest friend and has always been there for her, she isn’t interested in him romantically. In fact, she imagines for herself a glamorous London life at the side of her cousin Edward, a handsome poet. Edward has recently travelled to London in order to further his literary ambitions and Henrietta is on tenterhooks awaiting a letter from him. He has been in London for six weeks, and hasn’t written once – and when Henrietta reads of his betrothal to the beautiful Lady Sara, she is in despair. She’s fully aware of what she’s doing when she uses Kesseley as a shoulder to cry on – but she can’t help herself. She is so completely self-obsessed that she doesn’t even try not to hurt him, even as she recognises what she’s doing and feels bad about it. All she cares about is winning Edward back from Lady Sara, and suggests to Kesseley that he should make Lady Sara fall in love with him instead and steal her from Edward! Kesseley is aghast at such an idea – but Henrietta is insistent. He’s so much more handsome than Edward anyway, and if he just cut his hair and dressed like an earl instead of a farm-hand, he’d have the debutantes swooning at his feet!
She manoeuvres him into taking her to London as his mother’s companion – something about which Lady Kesseley is not at all happy, not liking the way Henrietta takes her son for granted. But Henrietta is too focused on her goal of getting Edward back to care very much about that and blithely continues to insist that if Kesseley would just smarten himself up, and perhaps act like the darkly brooding Lord Blackraven, the hero of her favourite novel, that perhaps he’ll have a better chance of finding himself a wife, regardless of whether he helps Henrietta with Edward or not.
By this point, Kesseley is disgusted with Henrietta but even more disgusted and angry with himself for the way he lets her walk all over him. Having suffered humiliation at various social events, he eventually snaps. He’s had enough of Henrietta’s machinations and needs to get her out from under his skin. In doing so, he does all the things she’s been urging him to – going to a good tailor, getting himself a decent valet and a good haircut – and even emulating the ennui and mystery embodied by the fictional Lord Blackraven. Kesseley isn’t stupid –he realises that what attracts young women to this romantic hero in droves is the air of mystery he exudes – and decides that that’s the way to play the game.
No one is more stunned than Henrietta at Kesseley’s transformation; she’s always thought him handsome but now he’s devastatingly so – and he immediately sets about wooing Lady Sara and every other young woman in sight. But this isn’t Kesseley – overnight he’s become a stranger to Henrietta, and the truth hits her like a ton of bricks. This isn’t the man he should be – and it certainly isn’t the man she now realises she loves.
Sometimes this is a hard book to read. Henrietta is blinkered and selfish and is an easy heroine to dislike at the start of the book. Granted, that’s the way the reader is supposed to respond to her, and Ms Ives has done a good job in showing her to be an immature young woman who can’t tell the difference between infatuation and love. The reader can see quite clearly that what Henrietta feels for Kesseley is more than friendship. She’s deeply attracted to him (there’s a point at which she finds herself thinking about him in the bath – all wet, naked, bulging muscle!) and has responded enthusiastically to the odd kiss they’ve shared. But her familiarity and easy relationship with him blinds her to the true nature of her feelings for him – and when she does realise them, it’s too late.
Kesseley begins the book as a very sympathetic character, even though one can’t help but agree with his own assessment of his relationship with Henrietta – namely that he lets her take him for granted and is spineless for doing so. The author does an excellent job of showing and building his frustrations and conveying his desperation to stop himself from enduring further hurt at her hands. She then proceeds to turn him into a rake of the first order – and one of the things I appreciated about that section of the book as a whole is that Kesseley really does become a rake. There’s a line of Henrietta’s where she admits she’d had no idea what being a rake truly meant , having only a fictional character to go by – which is a surely a comment on the genre as a whole. There are so many books around with the words “rake”, “rogue”, “devil”, or “wicked” in the title in which the hero is actually no such thing. So while it’s perhaps not his most shining hour, it’s important to the story that Kesseley really does plumb the depths – drinking, gambling, whoring – as I think he needs to go there, to the edge of self-destruction, in order to be able to appreciate the honesty and openness of the life he’d led before. And I think Henrietta needs to see him like that in order to realise the depth of the damage her thoughtlessness has wrought – how asking Kesseley to act the part of a rake, she’d opened up all the old wounds inflicted on him by his father.
Rakes and Radishes is a very strong début novel, and kudos to Ms Ives for daring to challenge and upend some of the most beloved tropes in the genre. The writing has a few rough edges to it here and there, and there is the usual (and unfortunate) smattering of Americanisms, but the author’s handling of difficult subject matter and the emotional complexity of the story more than make up for those deficiencies.