Desert Isle Keeper
The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting
KJ Charles revisits Regency England in The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting, a frothy, wonderfully trope-y, Heyer-esque romp that, while light-hearted, is underpinned by the author’s customary insight into the workings of the society of the day and a very sharp-eyed look at the importance of security and happiness and what people do to obtain it. At its centre however, is a lovely opposites-attract romance between a lonely, grumpy baronet and a beautiful, sunny-natured young man, who are nonetheless exactly what the other needs.
Newly arrived in London, Robin and Marianne Loxleigh of Nottinghamshire (*snort*) immediately set about making friends in society, their good looks, charm and pleasant, unassuming manner meaning they’re very soon assured of a welcome wherever they go. Like a great number of the other young ladies and gentlemen in town, they’re both looking to make advantageous marriages – but unlike most of them, Robin and Marianne are not well-born; they’re nobodies from nowhere who know how to play the game to get what they want – and they play it very well indeed. Within a short time, Marianne has attracted the interest of a marquess, while Robin has set his sights on Alice Fenwick, a young woman in her first season whose birth – her father was a “provincial brewer” – and unexceptional looks render her beneath the notice of high society. But Robin knows what society doesn’t – that Alice stands to inherit twenty thousand pounds on her marriage, which is more than enough on which to live comfortably. Robin might be a fortune hunter, but he’s no intention of spending all the money and making Alice’s life a misery once she’s married him; he likes her and plans to make her a good husband. In most respects, anyway.
But there’s a rather large fly in the ointment in the form of Alice’s uncle, Sir John Hartlebury. A large, dark, scowling, incredibly suspicious fly with the most splendid pair of thighs Robin has ever seen.
Hart runs the brewery left to his sister Edwina by her first husband, which makes him something of an outsider in society, but he doesn’t care. He’s not popular, good-looking or charming; he’s socially awkward, plain-spoken and irascible, but he cares deeply for Alice and is immediately suspicious of Robin Loxleigh’s interest in her. Alice is clever, funny and kind, but in society, beauty is more highly prized than any of those things, and while Loxleigh has it in abundance Alice does not… so what can he possibly see in her if it’s not her twenty thousand pounds? Hart decides to find out as much as he can about the fellow, and to persuade Edwina – and Alice – that he’s up to no good.
Robin does his best to allay Hart’s suspicions but to no avail, and things come to a head one night at the gaming tables when Hart wins a very large sum of money from Robin that Robin is never going to be able to repay. Or perhaps… he can.
All I’ll say is that Robin finds a most inventive (and mutually satisfying!) solution that allows both men to come to a new understanding of one another – while they’re also falling helplessly in love. Hart discovers Robin is far from the heartless rogue he’d supposed him to be, and Robin learns of the big heart and vulnerability that lurk behind Hart’s gruff exterior. They’re flawed and they make mistakes, but they learn from them and from each other, too. Robin believes he’s not a good person and the only things he has to offer are his looks and charm, but Hart helps him to realise that’s not true and that he has value as a person beyond the superficial. Hart lacks self-esteem and believes himself “ugly”; he doesn’t have much experience with romance and sex, and has pretty much resigned himself to living a solitary life. Worse – and thanks to some truly heartbreaking events in his childhood – he doesn’t believe he deserves love or happiness. Until Robin shows him how wrong he is.
One of the many things I loved about this novel was the fact that Hart was prepared to listen to and learn from those around him. At the beginning of the book, he’s rather unbending, seeing the world in stark black and white, but as the story progresses, he’s brought to realise that not everyone can afford to see the world as he does, that his privilege has given him many more choices than are available to women and those without wealth or connections. I particularly enjoyed the parallels drawn between the Marriage Mart – where young women attempt to find security by marrying well – and Robin’s desire to find a wealthy wife for exactly the same reason, as well as the conversations about choices and morality and the hypocrisy of high society.
The familial relationships in the story are superbly written, too. Robin and Marianne have relied on each other from a young age and trust each other exclusively; their relationship is brilliantly written and rings completely true of two people who know each other inside out and have faced many hardships together. Their acerbic wit and obvious care for each other makes them easy to like and their clear-sightedness about how society operates makes it easy to root for them to succeed in their desire to worm their way in and hoodwink (if not actively steal from!) the nobs. Unlike the rest of society, they have no illusions about what they want or how to obtain it; they’re just more honest about it.
It’s clear that Alice, Edwina and Hart care very much for one another even though they share no blood ties, and I really appreciated the strong affection between Alice and Edwina (no evil stepmothers here!) The main female characters are all three-dimensional and interesting, with agency and ambitions of their own. Alice is delightful; perceptive and quick-witted, she’s good company but her ambition is to study mathematics and she really can’t be doing with all the balls and parties she’s expected to attend. Marianne’s and Edwina’s stories show how perilous marriage can be if women make the wrong choice of partner; Edwina’s second marriage was to a “selfish, greedy swine” who bled her dry, and Marianne, determined to attain wealth and respectability, makes a calculating but risky choice which will bind her to a man for whom she has no affection and much contempt.
The romance between Hart and Robin is a wonderful mix of sweet, steamy and swoony. Relationship conflicts arise organically as a result of situations and personalities and are never contrived or overdone, as Hart struggles to find the right way to keep Robin in his life for good. The scene near the end where Robin stands up for Hart so fiercely made me whoop with joy (in my head!), and the ensuing HEA is charming and very well deserved.
The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting seems, at first glance, to be a relatively simple story, but when you start burrowing beneath the surface, is revealed to be richly layered and incredibly satisfying in its complexity. It’s also the sort of book you finish with a heartfelt, happy sigh and lots of warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s clever, it’s fun, it’s witty and it’s gloriously romantic, and I gobbled it up and never wanted it to end. I’m sure you will, too.