Almost a Gentleman
by Pam Rosenthal
(Kensington Brava, $14.00, R) ISBN:0-7582-0443-4
****
The horror that had been four years of marriage ended in a carriage accident in Hyde Park. Phoebe had been the only survivor. Her young son, her vain and dissolute husband, and her unborn baby girl had all been killed. Never again would she be forced to parade before the ton like some show horse to assuage her husband’s vanity and need for admiration. She would turn her back on the society that had forced her into a loveless marriage, and with four quick chops of a pair of drapery shears, the long chestnut hair that had flowed down her back was gone, cut off just below her ears, her first sign of rebellion.

Three years later, “Phizz” Marston isn’t the richest or most notorious of the London dandies, but he has what is far more valuable than wealth or fame - a cold, unerring eye for style, and a deadly instinct for exclusivity. If he says something won’t do, that’s the end of it. If he puts his stamp of approval on something, it instantly becomes the latest rage. Reed-slim and elegant, he’s invited to all the best parties, and has the bow window table at his club, White’s in St. James Street. But no one knew Philip Marston’s origins. Bursting upon the London scene a few years before, he’s been an instant success, even though he’s charmingly honest and frustrating elusive about his parentage.

David Hervey, eighth earl of Linseley, is in London to vote in the House of Lords, and attend a ball at Almack’s with his best friend Admiral John Wolfe, even though he is uncomfortable in the city and on the dance floor. A lifelong farmer, he is much more at home on his farm in the country, but this vote is likely to be a close one. Then David’s world is shaken up suddenly by a sharp glance from Phizz’s gray eyes as the ebony-haired dandy swirls past him on the dance floor. He’s never been attracted to men before, but he can’t deny the connection that flashes between them as their eyes meet for an instant.

When Phizz arrives home several hours later after dinner and cards with friends, Simms, his long-time and trusted valet, tells him that there’s a guest waiting for him, and Phizz requests that the guest be sent to his bedroom in twenty minutes. What happens in those twenty minutes, if it becomes public knowledge, could set London society on its ear in an instant. Because in that brief period of time, Phizz becomes Phoebe. She has had her revenge on society in the most clever and creative of ways. As Phizz, she can move freely about town, choose what she does and doesn’t do, and with her reputation for declaring who is in or out, actually controls many of the ton who saw her only as a clotheshorse when she was Lady Claringworth, giving her no credit for her formidable intelligence. She is free as a man in ways she never could have been as a woman. And she is so convincing as a man because she never wants to be a woman again, owned and controlled by both a husband and the society she lives in. Phoebe loves her daring and eccentric lifestyle, and no one is going to take it away from her, including a dashedly handsome and intriguing earl just up from the country.

But David goes to bed troubled by his attraction for a man, knowing that he must marry again, and father more children to ensure descendants for the family title and lands. However, things don’t go as planned, for he continues to run into Phizz, and every time is more attracted. Then he hears a threat against Phizz, a promise to teach him a lesson, and rather than confronting him, follows him on a trip to the country, where he is delighted to discover that Phizz is actually a woman. Meanwhile, Phoebe enjoys being back in the countryside where she grew up, blissfully unaware that she has been found out, or that the dangers she faces from an anonymous source are much greater than she has imagined.

And that’s only the first 70 pages or so of this wonderfully complex novel that deals with issues of ownership, gender, obsession, murder, freedom, and the ways men and women relate to one another. Both Phizz and Phoebe are delightful, as together they take revenge for the slights against the late Lady Claringworth and poke holes in the stuffiness of the ton. David is also a multilayered character, hiding his love and respect for his land and the people who work it under a façade of lordly demands. Solving the question of who is threatening Phoebe and why it involves her best friends and a host of minor characters as well, all but a few of them skillfully and completely drawn and realized.

Debut author Pam Rosenthal has created a realistic cast of flawed and human characters, each with their own secrets to be discovered at some inopportune time, and used them to ask questions about the problems of their time and show how many of those problems still exist today. What is equality? Are an individual’s rights based upon their innate worth, or upon the accident of their gender? Is love something that frees or enslaves the beloved? Phizz, in particular, reflects this, as he is set up in contrast to the rest of proper society, and admired far and wide for being what he isn’t.

And while answers are provided with the required happy ending, the questions themselves and the ways that the characters had to wrestle with them echo in the reader’s mind long after the last page is turned. Reminiscent of the indulgent and delightful wickedness of the movie Victor/Victoria, this is a book to linger over, because Phizz’s scenes are as titillating in their own way are the hot and steamy seduction scenes between Phoebe and David. Even readers who are not fans of Regency romance will find much to enjoy in Almost a Gentleman.

--Joni Richards Bodart


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