LaVyrle Spencer’s The Gamble begins with one of the most interesting enemies-to-lovers premises I’ve ever seen. In the dusty little town of Proffitt, Kansas, Agatha Downing, a struggling milliner, has long endured the noise and drunkenness in the saloon next door. But when a painting of a naked woman is carried into the establishment, it’s too much. Agatha limps over to confront the owner of the saloon. And thus begins a war between the teetotalers of the town and the purveyors of moral depravity – specifically, handsome man-about-town Scott Gandy, who intends to make a success of his business no matter how many do-gooder old maids he has to outwit to do so.
What Spencer does best in this story is to show that neither side is completely right or wrong. Agatha makes a few incorrect assumptions about Scott and his employees, but when she realizes she’s wrong (for instance, the women who work for him dance and entertain, but are not prostitutes), she admits it and tries to do better. I also liked her because of her difficult circumstances. She limps because her drunken father injured her as a child, so she believes she’ll never have the husband and children she longs for. And as her crusade continues, she receives anonymous letters which threaten worse consequences if she doesn’t stop.
At first Scott seems more of a stereotype – a ladies’ man who indulges in every vice from smoking to sex. But he also comes up with clever ideas to attract customers despite the ladies singing hymns outside his door, and he pays Agatha a staggeringly generous sum to tempt her into sewing for his employees, which is the first step in her thawing towards them. When he and Agatha join forces to take care of a neglected little boy, that brings them closer still. She won’t give up on her crusade, though, and when she takes it all the way to the governor, Prohibition begins to look more and more likely. That will mean Scott has to pack up his operation for good.
So why didn’t this book get a higher grade? Two reasons. The first is that while the “wets” and “drys” battled it out, I was riveted, but after that conflict is finally resolved, the plot peters out while the story stretches on. Once the differences between the hero and heroine are resolved, it’s not much fun simply watching them enjoy each other’s company day in and day out, especially since the only thing left for them to do is decide to get married, which they take an inordinately long time to do considering that this is set in 1880.
The second reason is that Scott became a saloon owner with a found family of employees after his cotton plantation was hit hard by the Civil War. He still owns the land and the mansion, but there are too many painful memories associated with the place. I found it difficult to sympathize with an ex-slave owner, though, even though he was the good sort of owner whose former slaves later return to help restore the house. One of them speaks with wistful nostalgia about how big the cotton fields used to be, while a white character addresses her using the n-word. So this part of the story didn’t work for me.
All this happens in the final third of the book, which also includes the trope where humans are uncontrollably aroused by watching horses mate. So all in all, The Gamble is a bit of a mixed bag. The setting is wonderfully detailed, Spencer excels at bringing the past to life, and the characters feel like real people. Despite its problems, I enjoyed reading it, and readers in the mood for a realistic historical romance should find plenty to like as well.
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I'm Marian, originally from Sri Lanka but grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in Georgia and Texas, ended up in Toronto. When I'm not at my job as a medical laboratory technologist, I read, write, do calligraphy, and grow vegetables in the back yard.