The Rake by Mary Jo Putney
(Topaz, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40686-8
*****
When I heard last summer that Mary Jo Putney was working on a rewrite of her classic The Rake and the Reformer, I remember being both intrigued and worried. Intrigued because this is one of my all-time keepers, top 25 romance novels ever; worried because I wondered whether an attempt to "up-date" this great book would in fact weaken its powerful impact.

I needn't have worried. In the parlance of publishing, this is not just a reprint. That is, the publisher didn't simply take an old book, give it a new cover, and jack up the price. But it is not a "rewrite" in the sense of, say Catherine Coulter's recent release, The Offer, which took an old Regency and expanded it into a longer (and in my opinion not better) book.

What Putney has done in The Rake is take the story, the characters, the events, the scenes, and most of the dialogue from the earlier book and apply to these the writing skill she has developed over the past ten years. I always tell my students that the essence of good writing is rewriting. In rewriting The Rake and the Reformer into The Rake, Putney has demonstrated the truth of this maxim. This is a better written book. But the story is the same thank goodness!

For those of you unfamiliar with Putney's ground breaking 1988 release, The Rake (like its predecessor) tells the story of Reginald Davenport, rake extraordinaire and "Lady" Alys Weston, the unusual steward of his estate, Strickland. Putney introduced us to Reggie in a previous book (you don't need to find The Diabolical Baron; Putney provides all the backfill you need) where he was a minor character, the man superseded from inheriting the title and estates of the Earl of Walgrave by the appearance of the rightful heir. Reggie was a pretty obnoxious fellow, a drunk, a brawler, and a seeming ne'er do well with a highly dubious reputation.

As The Rake begins, Reggie has been summoned to meet with the new earl. He fully expects that his cousin will withdraw his allowance, and wonders how a 37 year old man with his notoriety will be able to support himself. Instead, the earl offers Reggie the Dorset estate, Strickland, where Reggie had lived until his whole family died when he was eight. It turns out that the estate was really Reggie's inheritance, but that his guardian ( a nasty fellow) had essentially swindled him out of it. The earl remarks that Strickland is an extremely prosperous property, thanks largely to the labors of the steward, A.E. Weston.

As Reggie discovers when he arrives at Strickland, A stands for Alys, and his steward is a woman. Alys Weston is a most unusual woman, in both appearance and behavior. She was able to obtain the position of steward because the earl was an absentee landlord and Strickland's neighbors conspired to get her the post. She has turned the estate in to a model of advanced agricultural practices and humane treatment of tenants and workers. One reason Alys has succeeded in a traditional male sphere is her unusual appearance. She is tall nearly 5'10"; she is striking rather than conventionally pretty. She has a tremendous inferiority complex about her appearance, and has resigned herself to spinsterhood at 30.

This odd couple are the hero and heroine of The Rake and the story of their relationship is extremely well drawn. Reggie tries so hard to behave in a gentlemanly fashion, to subdue his passion for his respectable steward. Alys' insecurities convince her that no man can truly find her attractive and strives to accept that she and Reggie can be no more than friends. Rarely have a hero and heroine been so well matched as these two and rarely has an author done a better job of developing and sustaining sexual tension than Putney does here.

But there is so very much more in this novel. Reggie finds himself at a crossroads. He has clearly passed from being a heavy drinker to being an alcoholic and unless he changes his ways, he is doomed to an early death. The Rake and the Reformer was one of the earliest historicals to deal realistically with alcoholism and the reader truly empathizes with Reggie's struggle to remain sober.

There is Alys' secret past, which ultimately threatens their new found love. There is the sweet romance of Alys' ward and Reggie's friend. There is the touching romance between Reggie's manservant and a housemaid. There is a villain who seeks to murder the person who stands between him and a great inheritance. And there is a remarkably fine description of English country life in the early 19th century.

I gave The Rake five hearts. After all, this book in its earlier incarnation sits on my keeper shelf and I have reread it more than once over the years. But, I must enter a caveat here. If you already have The Rake and the Reformer on your shelves, I am not sure that the improved writing (and the slightly hotter love scenes) are worth spending $7.00 of a limited book budget.

If you have never had the opportunity to read The Rake and the Reformer and you enjoy excellent writing, characterization, dialog, plotting, love scenes in short, if you want to read one of the best historical romances ever written then rush out and buy Mary Jo Putney's The Rake. You will not be disappointed.

--Jean Mason


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