The Wicked Wallflower
This first book in a new series by Maya Rodale is fun, fluffy, and unashamedly pokes fun at a number of trends in current popular culture. Now, I love well-done romantic fluff. It’s hard to write convincingly, and Ms Rodale certainly displays a talent for writing sparkling dialogue that flows effortlessly. The story is well written, there’s plenty of wit, the chemistry between the hero and heroine is wonderful, the love scenes are steamy and there’s a subtle undercurrent of deeper emotion that comes to the surface in the later part of the book.
Having said all that – why have I given the book a B-?
I think it comes down to the fact that I enjoyed the book in spite of the problems I found with it, but I was unable to ignore them completely.
Lady Emma Avery and her friends, Olivia and Patience are into their fourth seasons and remain unmarried. They have acquired the nicknames of “London’s Least Likely…”, Emma’s epithet being “London’s Least Likely to Misbehave.” For three years, Emma has had a suitor – of sorts – the impoverished second son of a Viscount, but his courtship has been so subtle as to have been practically non-existent, and Emma is trying to think of a way to bring him up to scratch.
One night when the girls have been at the sherry, Olivia and Prudence hit upon the idea of sending the notice of Emma’s betrothal to the newspapers. Emma is not keen (probably because she’s not quite as drunk as the other two girls!), and then things get out of hand when her friends come to the conclusion that if Emma is going to tell a whopper, she might as well make it a big one and announce her engagement to London’s Most Gorgeous and Unattainable, the rakish Duke of Ashbrooke. As Olivia and Patience are drawing up the announcement to the sounds of Emma’s protests, a house-fire causes them to have to leave in a hurry, leaving the letters behind them.
Of course, the notice appears in the newspapers almost immediately and the stage is set for a good “Rake and the Wallflower” story.
I raced through the first third eagerly, and was particularly pleased to note that the hero, who was described as a rake, pretty much was one – a man whose conquests were many and who made no bones about his frequent visits to the gambling table or to the brandy bottle. With so many recent books bearing the word “rake” in the title, that may sound surprising, but in most cases, the term has been misapplied to indicate a man with a degree of sexual experience and nothing more.
Blake Auden (who appears to have been named after a couple of poets), Duke of Ashbrooke, is a notorious womaniser whose good looks and charm have ensured he’s never short of women throwing themselves at him. But, he is, as the saying goes, much more than a pretty face. He’s a highly intelligent man and something of an inventor, but his reputation as a good-time-guy means he has trouble finding investors to take him seriously. I thought this was rather an interesting gender reversal, as it’s usually the story that the pretty woman with brains finds it difficult to get anyone to see beyond her looks and credit her with intelligence.
Once Blake gets over the shock of seeing his betrothal notice in the paper, he realises that an engagement to a young lady of impeccable virtue and reputation may be just the thing to help him to convince potential investors that he’s a sound prospect. So instead of denouncing Emma, he plays along, and they agree to a fake engagement to their mutual benefit at the end of which Emma will jilt him and they will go their separate ways.
I very much enjoyed the way the relationship between Blake and Emma developed. Their banter was delightful and I liked the way that Emma gained confidence and gradually began to see herself as Blake sees her. She is the one woman he has come across who is immune to the “Ashbrooke Effect” (more on that later), and of course, Blake is a man who loves a challenge. But very soon, Emma becomes more than a challenge and Blake is falling hard for London’s Least Likely to Succumb to his Charms.
The problem is that Emma has become so used to being a wallflower, a woman who is never really seen that she finds it hard to believe that the most handsome and eligible man in London could be genuinely interested in her, so her doubts and indecision as to the authenticity of his motives made perfect sense. There’s a wonderfully insightful moment late in the book where her mother tells her how upsetting it is that Emma had not only given up on doing the best for herself, she’d given up expecting it. What didn’t make sense, however, was Emma’s continuing preoccupation with Benedict, the young man who has been very half-heartedly courting her for the past three years, and who was, in my opinion, a mere contrivance to produce a little more conflict later in the story. He was never more than a cardboard cut-out and I thought that Emma’s insecurities and the way Blake was coming to terms with the fact that he’d finally fallen in love were sufficient to drive the narrative.
It seems to me what when < b>The Wicked Wallflower is good, it’s very good. I adored the scene where Blake and Emma stay up all night writing fake love letters and the use to which they are put later, and I thought Blake’s relationship with his prickly and unconventional Great-Aunt was so much the better for being understated.
But, as the rhyme goes, when it’s bad, it’s… well, not horrid, but not great. I really didn’t like the “rapid edits” between scenes which felt as though the author was trying to ape a film or TV show. The repeated use of “slogans”, such as the “Ashbrooke Effect”, to describe the swoon-worthy effect of Blake’s devastating good looks and charm upon any female within a twenty-mile radius; and “London’s Least Likely” to describe Emma and her friends were gimmicky and eventually became irritating.
My main problem with the book overall is that it’s very modern in tone. Blake and Emma travel together for several days unchaperoned – in fact, she never seems to have a chaperone. There was frequent use of anachronistic language – would a duke in 1824 really have referred to his elderly great-aunt as an “old broad”, or use the term “lover boy”? And the “Fortune Games” (which to me felt like a cross between The Hunger Games and Big Brother), in which members of the Arden family compete annually at the whim of Great-Aunt Augusta for the largest bequest in her will, felt completely contrived and out of place.
Having said all that, however, the book redeemed itself somewhat towards the end when things take a more serious tone and when I really felt deeper emotions coming to the fore.
On the whole, I did enjoy The Wicked Wallflower and, knowing what I now know about the tone and setting wouldn’t mind reading more in this series. I would, however, warn anyone who likes a reasonable degree of historical accuracy in their historical romances to leave that requirement at the door, because that is most definitely not the book’s strong point. But if you’re looking for an undemanding, fluffy read with engaging characters who wear nice frocks and tight breeches, this might be just the ticket!