Last Gentleman Standing
I feel like this was an experiment of a book: take a girl, make her a surprise heiress, and don’t tell the reader which of three potential gentlemen is the actual hero until the last act of the book.
I don’t think it really worked.
Elisabeth Elham is a penniless governess when her estranged and extremely rich uncle dies and leaves everything to her, because when her parents died, she did not beg him for money. Among the everything is a broken down estate, a literal fuck tonne of money, and the ability to enter society. Because Elisabeth is a good and kind person, she collects her penniless cousins (who did not inherit anything because they did have the audacity to go to their rich uncle when they lost everything). She also needs to find another cousin to act as chaperone, and an entry into society.
Along the way, she meets three dudes, a fortune hunter (who cheerfully tells her that he’s a fortune hunter when they first meet, because he’s found that young ladies get mad when they find out further along the courting process), her neighbor (a viscount-in-waiting), and a Byronic type, recently returned from the West Indies. Part of the planned fun of this book is playing, “which dude is endgame?”
We’ll get to the dudes in a minute, but let’s discuss Elisabeth. When handed this pile of money, she immediately goes to fetch her various cousins, and the older chaperone cousin has connections with a duchess, so they’re all able to get introduced into society without so much as a hiccup. “Oh, yes, I will get you vouchers to Almacks, no problem.” It’s just… so easy! Impossibly easy! And Elisabeth is just so unruffled by all of this. She’s good and sweet and kind and the most frustration she shows is, “Wow, I need to spend some time alone in my room because my cousins talk a lot.” Which, yeah, I feel you, but she just makes the jump from penniless teacher to impossibly rich heiress without so much as a “what the fuck?” Everyone wants to help her. There’s no internal conflict. There’s no growing pains. She gets some new dresses, and everything is just ducky.
Even her female cousin, Belinda, marries a duke after being in society for like, five minutes. There’s some concern about her male cousin, and how will he learn to operate in society, but there’s the neighbor dude who can help him, so that’s dispensed with.
The problem with playing dude-roulette is that there’s no chance for character development on the hero. There were parts of each dude’s narrative that I liked. I have to admit, I appreciate a fortune hunter who admits that’s what he is, though admitting to the woman he hopes will marry him that he’s got a gambling problem isn’t, perhaps, the wisest of moves. The Byronic dude had a whole thing about “yeah, I tried being a planter in the West Indies, but I suck at it and also slavery is terrible” which… yes, yes it is. If he hadn’t admitted that, then I would have had a lot more trouble accepting him as a potential hero. The neighbor dude is, you know, a neighbor. He’s fine.
There’s through-line of “Hey have you read this book, Pride and Prejudice, by this Austen chick?” that makes the Byronic dude look like a frontrunner for the hero spot.
I wanted to like this. I really did. But other than literally being the last gentleman standing, there’s no real reason I saw for the hero and the heroine to be together. There’s no reason for them not to be together, either. There’s just no there there.
This is a re-release and refresh of a book from 25 years ago. (Well, more, since it was first published in 1980). There’s a few artifacts from the conventions of that time (Elisabeth being referred to as “the girl” in the text for one), which, fine, whatever. I might have more quibbles about that particular thing if there were not all these other issues. And yes, books from the Old Skool didn’t have much in the way of heroic development. But at this point in time here in Romancelandia, we expect hero to have actual dimensions. And if you’re going to take a book from the Old Skool and revise it and re-release it, I’m going to have certain expectations.
Basically, I’m disappointed.