MacLean’s Nine Rules To Break When Romancing A Rake sat on Miss Bates’s TBR for a long, long while. She was averse to reading a romance novel possessed of such a lengthy and insipid title. Spurred by Wendy’s TBR Challenge, the promise of interesting sharing on Twitter with like-minded readers, and MacLean’s sundry good reviews, she thought this month’s TBR theme, New-To-You-Author, perfect fodder for Nine Rules. And, truth be told, she really really liked the Empire dress on the cover. It took Miss Bates a while to warm to the characters, narrative, and MacLean’s style, but for a first-time read and début romance, it was a good reading experience: it got better the further Miss Bates read. What started out as a middling read, mildly interesting and clipping-along, inched its way to pretty good to darn-good-ending. Miss Bates admits that her impression of MacLean leans to “much ado;” nevertheless, Nine Rules is an amusing and heartfelt romance novel. It doesn’t break any ground, falters on several fronts, is nominally historical, and doesn’t enter innovative, or interestingly controversial territory. Would Miss Bates read another MacLean? Probably, possibly, likely.
Miss Bates isn’t sure whether this lauds Nine Rules, but it was tightly structured and possessed of a well thought out plot. The narrative was organized around a principle, one which may or not be attractive to a reader, depending on her sensibility, that is, “nine rules.” What Nine Rules lacked in historical authenticity it made up for in design and a message that aimed to empower plump, plain spinsters. 😉 Does it vindicate them? No. Miss Bates thinks that its penchant for a funny scene, a quip and banter, a hero who must be all alpha and all fallen-at-heroine’s-feet by the end, undermines the message when the heroine “gets her man” by clichéd, albeit entertaining, means.
“Nine rules” are concocted by Lady Calpurnia Hartwell who, at 28, “was a dusty old spinster set firmly upon the shelf.” She’s spent ten years on ballroom sidelines, a wallflower of impeccable reputation and yawn-inducing probity. She lives for her name (and is succored by a loving family) but is essentially dissatisfied, restless, and deprimée. She has had one moment of adventure and encouragement from a lone encounter one night when she sneaked out to the garden from a ball to avoid the whispered appraisals of her plain-and-plumpness. She meets a mysterious and beautiful man who flirts with her and boosts her confidence in a short-lived, anonymous conversation, ” ‘Remember, you are an empress. Behave as one, and they will have no choice but to see you as such. I already do … ‘ ” Enter one Gabriel St. John, Marquess of Ralston, “rake and libertine,” and the hero who’ll see past ordinariness to the extraordinary Callie beneath. But first, the “rules.”
Callie’s tired of being the pristine spinster, safe, staid, and boring, or as she says, “too plain, too plump, too boring.” She writes a list of nine things she’d like to do, some of which may ruin her reputation, others which reflect her sadness at being unattractive and undesired. In short, Callie wants to do what she perceives men get to do and women don’t and, at the same time, to be recognized and desired as a woman. Callie’s been subjected to some cruel jibes about her weight and unprepossessing looks; witness her aunt’s ill-natured pronouncement, ” ‘ … we are long past the days of Rubens, Calpurnia.’ ” She breaks “rules” in an attempt to regain a sense of doing something with her life, some defiance of her spinster-aunt future, as well as the pitilessly harsh-judging “ton.”
The “rules,” which dominate the first half of the novel, however, are precisely what Miss Bates found unappealing. They range from “being kissed” to “smoking a cheroot” to “fencing” to “visiting a tavern” to “dancing every dance at a ball” to “being recognized as beautiful.” They are a combination of the stereotype of what every unattractive, plump girl dreams of and a farcical, immature understanding of male privilege. Miss Bates liked Callie: she’s funny, loveable, and smart. But as long as society’s “rules,” or their breaking, rule the narrative, Miss Bates found the endeavor silly. As a kind of feminist fist in the face of a spinster’s fate, sure, why not? How convincing they were as such is another story. (As a matter of fact, the narrative improves when the rules are left by the wayside and the focus veers to the developping romance.) Nothing truly threatens Callie: she is beloved by all, especially her loving family. She must overcome her meekness and lack of confidence, not the “insolence of office” or the painful insults that, for example, Jane Eyre is subjected to. Callie is a wealthy girl who belongs to a powerful family; she plays at rebellion. She is subjected to cattiness and pettiness; she feels bereft, but the fact remains that she has been, and will be, pampered and cherished. Moreover, Callie doesn’t reject what her society expects of a woman, wife- and motherhood; rather, she despairs of ever attaining those states (she thought her impeccable reputation would ensure them; it’s historically inaccurate that her wealth didn’t), so she decides to have some fun. To leap from the spinster-shelf and enjoy some last hurrahs.
Fun and orgasmic hurrahs enter in the form of Gabriel St. John, Marquess of Ralston. To implement the breaking of her first rule, Callie seeks Gabriel, the man in the garden, the man she’s loved her whole life, the man she’s observed from her self-imposed wallflower’s back burner. One of the clever ironies of the novel is that as Callie courts social “ruin,” Gabriel seeks respectability. His recently discovered half-sister, Julianna, the post-product of his mother’s abandonment, must be introduced to society. When supremely respectable Callie shows up at his house, seeking her first kiss, he strikes a deal with her. He’ll help her achieve her goal (though he doesn’t know about her list, about all her goals), if she’ll coach his sister on her introduction into society. Thus, the two are thrown together. As Gabriel is embroiled with Callie in preposterous “list-motivated” situations, a tavern, fencing-club, gambling-den, he recognizes her value and beauty. But, his heart is closed off. Gabriel has betrayed-by-mommy issues, witness “my mother … the unloving creature who bore us,” and doesn’t believe in love, ” ‘ … love is overrated. What matters is responsibility. Honor.’ ” And yet, he likes, abets, and defends Callie … and realizes he can’t live without her.
Gabriel is a familiar figure in historical romance fiction: the so-called rake, with the requisite mistress, oodles of money, and a heart hurt and seemingly inaccessible (in this case because of his Cruella-de-Vil Mommy). He’s witnessed his father’s humiliating display of begging his wife to stay with him. There’s nothing that can convince Gabriel that love, tenderness, and companionship are to be found in a woman’s arms. At least not until he has to contend with Callie and her outlandish list. In fact, Gabriel’s nasty can’t be sustained for long; it turns out he’s a pretty nice guy and a marquess to boot. But his most interesting moments are when he reflects the petty cruelties that his society directs at a plain girl like Callie. There’s a terrific scene where he calls her “plain and missish” and Callie overhears him. She’s hurt and he’s regretful and all is well because her love for him is such that she forgives all all the time. Of course, once he recognizes how beautiful she is, well, Callie has all she’s ever wanted and that dismisses his callousness. Quite often, Miss Bates thought there was more this romance could have done with what it promised. On the level of sheer action and entertainment, it ended with a great great scene, but the unmitigated fun of it did not make up for its shortcomings.
In the end, Nine Rules and their breaking is more about how Callie looks to Gabriel: an affirmation that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is more about Callie’s sexually awakening and how she comes to marry the man of her dreams and have his babies than about what she learns and what she does. Nine Rules skims the surface of what it could have been. (On the other hand, it is also a novel whose initial wordiness gives way to wit and there’s something to be said for adroit writing.)
Like its heroine, MacLean’s Nine Rules is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Sarah MacLean’s Nine Rules To Break When Romancing A Rake was published by Harper Collins in 2010. It is available in paper and e-book format from the usual vendors.