A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant

Why I read it:  I’ve had this on my TBR for ages – I bought it and planned to read it as a special treat and as often happens, I kind of forgot about it.  When I got Ms. Grant’s new book A Woman Entangled I was reminded I hadn’t read A Gentleman Undone yet and I like to read in order so…
What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  A seductive beauty turns the tables on a gentleman gaming for the guiltiest of pleasures in this rich and sensual Regency romance from beloved newcomer Cecilia Grant.Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London’s gentlemen’s clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm’s length.A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind with a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with unspoken promise of fleshly delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.

What worked for me (and what didn’t): Cecilia Grant has a way with words.  Her style immerses me in the atmosphere of the novel and I have great appreciation for the way the words are crafted to create beauty and lyricism.  That’s not enough of course. For a romance novel to work it has to be more than poetic words – the characters have to attract me in some way and I have to buy into the love story.  Here, I did find a lot to like in the characters and I was invested in their love story, but there was something missing in the final stages which stopped this from being the perfect read.
First, kudos to Ms. Grant for writing such an unusual heroine.  Lydia is a courtesan who has actually had sex with many men.  Not only that she enjoys the sex.  Well, sort of.  I actually understood this.  She enjoyed the physicality of the sex she had with Roanoke (her protector for most of the book) – it was less clear whether she had enjoyed any of the sex she had when she worked in a brothel – but she remained emotionally removed from it.  I think that she refused to look within to her emotions when it came to sex and that made it possible for her to survive in the life she had chosen.  But she did not revel in it – she wanted out.  Hence, the plan to raise two thousand pounds so that she could live independently and without resort to further sex work.    I also say “chosen” because she did choose to become a prostitute.  She didn’t do it gladly (and I won’t spoil things by saying what her reasons were here), but she did make a choice.  And for me, this was important.  One of the criticisms of A Precious Jewel (Mary Balogh) is that Priss, as a result of poverty, had no choice but to turn to sex work.  It has been pointed out that there were other options and at least in that book, they appear not to have been explored.  In A Gentleman Undone, Lydia had her reasons for choosing sex work and it gave me the explanation that was missing in the Balogh book (I should point out that their commonality is the time period and the profession of the heroine and that I enjoyed both, but that’s about it).

No man had ever looked at her that way. No man would likely ever do so again. But he made her insides feel like clockwork for a moment, ingenious subtle clockwork instead of fallible flesh, and it occurred to her she might stay in that moment forever, given the choice. She might bask wordless in such a transformative gaze for as many moments as remained to her life.

No. Not transformative. This was who she was, quick and gleaming and intricate. She’d known that already. Now someone else knew.

What I liked most about Will is that he never judges Lydia for her choice.  He is immediately attracted to her innate sensuality and, when they embark upon a scheme to gain fast money for each of their personal needs, that attraction develops from lust to something much more.

“You’re wearing stockings, I suppose?” And here was the voice he would use for seduction, its soft rasp a kind of promissory note for the touch of his weather-beaten soldier’s hands.

But she would not permit the use of hands, and the only kind of seduction worth recognizing was the kind that came with an offer of carte blanche. “Of course I’m wearing stockings.” No change whatsoever in the timbre of her own voice.

“What color are the garters?” His eyes were steady on hers.

“Blue, tonight.” So were hers steady on him.

“Blue.” He repeated the word as though to take possession of it. He might possess a lady piece by piece in this way, if she weren’t strong-willed and otherwise occupied.

“Blue, indeed. That’s one point settled. Is that your idea of distraction?” She ought, of course, to feel his hot attention creeping up like fingertips to the place where her garter was knotted on her thigh. Perhaps she would, later. For the moment his words only redoubled the lucidity with which the needful facts came to her. Here would be a queen of clubs, and her left thumb knew precisely the spot at which it must slide into the deck.

“Give me time.” His voice sank a few notches down the scale. “Dark blue like the body of your gown, or medium blue like the trimmings?”

“Royal blue, it’s called. Not medium. And I told you your time is limited.” She gave her head a slight toss, just to show how little she was affected. “If you mean to make an inventory of my underclothes, you’d better pick up your pace.”

“Hasty men miss so much. There’s a pleasure in lingering over these things.”

Lingering, indeed. And over garters, of all things. “What a vexing sort of lover you must be.” Three more cards to go. “All that meandering about would drive a lady to distraction.”

“That, as I recall it, was my mission. Did I succeed to any degree?”

For all that Will was honourable and noble most of the time, he did have a bit of a wicked sense of humour and he wasn’t at all bashful, as he shares with Lydia here regarding the size of his penis.

“It’s an imperfect art, mental unclothing. One relies to a woeful degree on one’s own imagination. At least as far as all the interesting particulars are concerned.”

“I’ll spare you the effort. It’s big.

Lydia is prickly – she has a hard outer layer which she uses to protect herself.  Will Blackshear threatens her hard won equanimity.  He treats her as a lady.  She has few defences with him.  Nevertheless, she does employ what she has to keep him at arm’s length for as long as possible and even when they first become intimate, she clings to old habits to protect her heart. Will is wise to her tricks however and he wants the woman not the courtesan so a sort of battle of wills ensues.

God above, that gown! All over again he felt the electrical frisson, the nerve-sizzling, blood-simmering charge that had raced through him at the sight. Now his brain had had a bit of time to clear and to consider, he could perceive she’d left off some three or four of the usual layers that came between a lady and her gown. At the time he hadn’t known how to account for the blunt force of its appeal. Hadn’t tried to account, either, nor cared to. That gown had bypassed his brain to address his body directly, and his body had paid it the fervent attention of a treasure-hunter poring over a newly discovered map.

There were many things in the book I wasn’t expecting.  I certainly wasn’t expecting the way they got together.  I won’t give it away, but suffice to say that Will, for all his nobility, can only hold on to honour for so long.  Strangely, I liked that he showed himself to be a person who could make colossal mistakes.  Up until that point he had been noble and honourable almost to the point of being boring and weak.  I say almost, because he did manage to portray honour as a strength, even as it ate him away.  Will is haunted by the events surrounding the death of a Sergeant Talbot during the war with Napoleon and has sacrificed greatly to try and atone for what he believes is his great sin.  We readers know that he is suffering more from survivor’s guilt and perhaps a form of PTSD but his feelings of dishonour are so real to him that he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to make things, if not right, then better, for Sgt. Talbot’s widow and young son.  Lydia, who is very insightful, sees where this somewhat twisted sense of honour may lead him and I thought her steps in that regard were clever, even at the same time that I thought Mrs. Talbot’s thoughts on the matter were… convenient.

Where the story fell down a little for me was right at the end.  There was an activity which kind of fizzled as a denouement to the story.  I understood it but it didn’t have the dramatic impact I was expecting to see at the end of the book (or, that is to say, there wasn’t something else to have that dramatic impact – it was the only candidate.  While it was fitting enough, it lacked something in terms of a grand finale).

The other thing was that Lydia seemed to give in too easily.  I didn’t quite track exactly how Lydia went from being all about self preservation and self hatred (an interesting juxtaposition) to being in love with Will and all about garnering a life together.  There was some step in there that I missed, some emotional “click’ that felt missing for me.  It was nearly there, but not quite.

I will also say that there is MATHS in this book.  For those who know me, maths is not my favourite thing.  Fortunately, I mostly understood it and it was well integrated into the story, with enough detail to be interesting and fitting but without descending to tedium.  I suspect I missed a little of it because I hate maths and probability makes my eyes bleed, but I did understand the Monty Hall problem, having now seen it explained in a live comedy show (I know!), on Mythbusters and in this book.

The book is beautiful and I liked the risks the author took with Lydia’s character but I felt a little disconnected from the romance aspect especially toward the end.

I did wonder why Will stopped gambling at the end – why not go back and earn a bit more for a stake in a business?  Some family things were left kind of unresolved, but they may be addressed in the next book, which is about Will’s brother Nick.

Favourite Quote: 

He lay awake for well over an hour after she’d dropped into sleep, partly on the watch for nightmares, partly reviewing all the scenes of their acquaintance as though he could somehow rearrange them to arrive at a different ending.

There ought to be a different ending. They belonged with one another. Her broken edges fit with his.

Grade: B

7 comments on “A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant

  1. Jorrie Spencer

    We readers know that he is suffering more from survivor's guilt and perhaps a form of PTSD but his feelings of dishonour are so real to him that he is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to make things, if not right, then better, for Sgt. Talbot's widow and young son.This. Will actually stayed with me a long time after the book. I was surprised how much he resonated.I enjoyed reading your review! And it was fun that the author could show the heroine's smarts when it came to cards. Although I don't think of it as a fun book, mostly. In fact, I was surprised by its pervasive sense of sadness after A Lady Awakened. This author has real range, and I'm looking forward to her third book.

  2. Kaetrin

    Thx Jorrie 🙂 I liked Will quite a bit too. His honour, what he considered it to be for him, was bone deep and informed all aspects of his character. I thought it was clever of the author to manage that without making him a prig.

  3. Rosario

    The ending worked really well for me. Even knowing that there was going to be a HEA, it somehow didn't feel like it was a foregone conclusion that Lydia would be able to take that last step and actually love Will. For me, that worked and I bought it, but I can see how it might not have been successful to you.

  4. Kaetrin

    @Rosario I believed that Lydia did love Will, but I guess I didn't see where things changed for her sufficiently on the page. So it felt kind of abrupt to me, the shift from attraction to love. Or something like that! 🙂

  5. Nicola O.

    I really loved this book, tho unfortunately I read it long enough ago that the details are fuzzing out on me.

  6. Kaetrin

    @Nicola I enjoyed the book very much – a B is a definite win. But it didn't touch me quite as much as A Lady Awakened, to which I gave an A. 🙂

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