Scarlett Peckham’s The Rakess is an interesting experiment in reversing the rake figure in historical romance. I’m not sure it succeeds. We’re familiar with the rake-“anti”-hero, who remains “anti” until he meets the heroine: dissipated, carousing, given to sin and excess and focussed solely on pleasure, two of my favourites being Hoyt’s Duke of Sin and Balogh’s Notorious Rake. The rake is inevitably confronted by a good woman, a woman of purpose and substance who unearths his deeply-held desire for connection and an abandoning of his soul-destroying dissolute ways. Peckham’s heroine, with the unfortunate name of Seraphina Arden, exhibits the trappings of rakedom: she uses sex as an anodyne, drinks, and gads about town with unsavory characters. When the novel opens, she’s returned to her Cornish childhood home to write her memoirs, a much-anticipated double-volume of salacious deliciousness. There, she meets and has an affair with the upright, hard-working Scot architect, widower, and single father of two, Adam Anderson.
I was never convinced of Seraphina’s rakishness. Oh, she was most definitely notorious: with a devil-may-care attitude, indiscreet taking on of lovers (eschewing sentiment), and excessive drinking. These are but the trappings, as I said before. At core, what makes for a rake is purposelessness and amorality and it is obvious, from the start, Seraphina possesses neither. She is a feminist (modeled, according to Peckham’s notes, after Mary Wollstonecraft). She has worked for women’s equal place tirelessly. Her writing has made her a self-made woman and her memoir isn’t a money-maker for her enrichment, but a means of pointing to inequities by telling her own story. Whatever she acquires from sales will go towards an institute dedicated to helping women gain freedom and employment (a nod to Virginia Woolf, perhaps, on Peckham’s part?). Seraphina works with her closest friends in the Society of Sirens for the cause. She has high moral purpose and goals. Her behaviour, however, hides deep wounds of being abandoned by an aristocratic lover and shamed by her Cornish birthplace-community. Her memoir is an account of the hurt that was done her, but possesses the higher purpose of pointing to how women are punished for the sin of sex and excess while men are indulgently excused, even celebrated.
In concept, I appreciated Peckham’s purpose and was glad to see trope-twisting. Nevertheless, as romance, The Rakess was pure drudgery until the last quarter. The narrative stumbled along with an erratic, mercurial Seraphina and, well, a hero of pure weak sap. Adam is growly in the bedroom and lachrymose every where else. He’s always winking and smiling and being understanding and supportive. (On rereading my review notes, I had to chuckle at this one: “This hero is always smiling, winking, and blushing. It cannot be borne.”) Moreover, the love scenes carry all the sins of Valdez’s Passion, but thankfully none of their frequency. Peckham throws huge doses of painful backstory at Adam and Seraphina and I found Seraphina’s trauma and betrayals, moving; as for Adam, being he’s sketched so thin, much less interesting and convincing.
However, there is a point at which Adam confronts Seraphina’s profligacy, which is magnificent. From thereon, Mr. Nice Guy turns into a right bastard (I still don’t like him), but at least it makes for a superb betrayal and the requisite expiation is impressive. I didn’t love every moment of The Rakess, but I did love every moment of this point onwards. Will it be enough to bring me back to the series? Right now, I’m not sure. With Miss Austen’s baleful eye, I’d say The Rakess racks up an “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Scarlett Peckham’s The Rakess is published by Avon Books. It was released in April and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Avon Books, on Edelweiss+.