The Naked Earl
Sally MacKenzie’s The Naked Earl has a nice cover. When I looked at it approvingly, opened the novel and began to read, I had no idea this was to be the last moment I unconditionally enjoyed the book. My problems started in the novel’s very first scene, and in the end I had to take the book as my only reading material on two train journeys because that appeared to be the only way to actually make me finish it. There was little I liked, and what I liked was almost completely overshadowed by pages and pages I did not enjoy.
My first big problem with this novel were the walk-on characters. And no, I don’t mean the heroes and heroines of the earlier novels in the series – they were mentioned but discreetly kept in the background otherwise – but this novel’s hero and heroine and, as it seems, most of the other characters who make an appearance as well. Lots of developments have already taken place, all motives are clear, and for those who have not read the earlier novels (like me), the author sums matters up in a sparse sentence or two. Quite economical, but this makes it impossible to warm to any of the characters.
The first part of the novel is set during a house party, the guests of which are a singularly ill-assorted group. As the host is presented as a hedonistic and clever man, one can’t help wondering what on earth made him invite this incongruous lot, half of whom are extremely disagreeable people that no person of even moderate discernment would exchange the time of day with, much less invite anywhere. I briefly considered listing them here, but describing them in one sentence each would definitely be misleading as it would make these people actually sound funny. Which they aren’t. Having to read about them for many pages, they made my eyes glaze over.
There is one main plot and a couple of subplots. The subplots were given a fairly high amount of space, most probably because they are to provide the backstory for the main characters in Sally MacKenzie’s next two novels (at least). I spotted a baron and an untitled gentleman who are likely “naked” material. In themselves these couples had some potential, but here they took too much space away from the main couple, who receded into the background more than once.
The main plot is actually quite interesting, or might have been, had it been developed more. Lady Elizabeth (Lizzie) Runyon has known Robert (Robbie) Hamilton, the Earl of Westbrooke, since she was a child. He’s a close friend of her brother, the Duke of Alvord, and she has loved him forever. In three seasons he has shown no interest in her, and in a desperate bid she has accepted an invitation to the house party mentioned above to force his hand. He is a guest, too, and one night, to escape another lady who is trying to compromise him, he climbs out of the window of his room naked and into Lizzie’s room. Discovery can be averted, but rumor is rife, and Lizzie now expects an offer of marriage from Robbie. We are quickly told why he withholds it: He loves her and has loved her for years, but he is impotent. To be precise: He has a small penis, and as the result of a nasty prank that was played on him when he was 17, he has since been unable to maintain an erection when with a woman. He is reduced to masturbating and some erotic fantasizing, but believes he can never marry because of his handicap. So Robbie spends half of his time in despair and the other half berating Lizzie in jealous fits. Lizzie for her part is in turns devastated because it must be her fault that he doesn’t love her, and determined to be terribly daring to show him. Thus a potentially interesting and original plot element fizzles into been there, seen that.
My final big problem with the novel is that it can’t make up its mind what genre it wants to be and what mood it wants to create. Robbie’s situation might be explored in a romance that focusses on psychological depth and development, but is mostly left unexplored here. Some scenes of the book point to the classic Regency romp, but for that there is suprisingly little situational comedy and verbal wit that is not sexual innuendo. Sexual innuendo can be very funny, but it gets stale lightning fast if it is the only kind of humor around. The “comic” secondary characters are on the whole so flat they are practically see-through, so they don’t contribute much to the humor either. In the middle of the book, there is an attempted rape scene that is quite violent and horrible and might fit into a gothic romance, but jars here. I am all for a skillful merging of different atmospheres in a romance, but no merging takes place in this book as the author just skips from mood to mood, and that pulls the reader out of the novel repeatedly.
All this said, there are, few and far between, some glimpses to show that Sally MacKenzie could actually write a much better novel if she made up her mind what sort of book to write and rid herself of the notion that sexual innuendo automatically equals funny. The consummation scenes for the primary and secondary couple (one each) were well-written, both tender and unusual enough to give them spice without going over the top. Two characters talk about childlessness in a moving and believable scene. A fat girl whom everyone despises because her mother keeps pushing her at the gentlemen suddenly comes into her own when her true interest is raised. These scenes are good, but there are too few of them to salvage the rest of the book.
Unless you have read Sally MacKenzie’s earlier novels and want to find out more about characters introduced there, I can’t recommend The Naked Earl. It’s uneven, full of people I either disliked or only got to know about superficially, and what there is of humor is simply monotonous.