Sunday 20 December 2015

#CBR7 Book 139: "What a Wallflower Wants" by Maya Rodale

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Miss Prudence Merriweather Payton has been dubbed "London's Least Likely to Be Caught in a Compromising Position" and after four seasons, she may be the only woman to go unmarried for so long after graduation her finishing school. No one, not even the loving aunt who raised her or her two best friends, knows that Prudence was raped at a ball early in her first season and has made very sure she's never alone with a man or considered marriage material. After all, her entire worth on the marriage market has been forcibly stripped from her. Yet now, with the upcoming anniversary ball of her finishing school, where even her two former wallflower friends have found happy marriages, she can't bear to be the only graduate left unmarried.

Taking matters into her own hands, Prudence travels to Bath and arranges a marriage of convenience to a gentleman who she knows will never expect or demand conjugal rights, as he's rather more interested in his best friend. However, on the way to his estate, where they are to be married by special licence, their stagecoach is attacked by a highwayman, and her intended pushes her out of the carriage to distract their attacker. She manages to escape, no thanks to her fiancee, without attracting the robber's attention and is left to make her way to civilisation alone.

Trudging through uncomfortable heat at first and later pouring rain, Prudence vows never to trust another man again. When she's offered a ride by a dashing and handsome man who introduces himself as John Roark, Viscount Castleton, she refuses even though she's cold, wet and tired. They nevertheless meet again at the country inn where she seeks refuge. As the torrential downpour continues for days on end, the two are trapped, along with a number of other guests, until the weather settles down. John and Prudence spend quite a lot of time in each other's company, and it doesn't take long for John to realise that someone badly hurt Prudence at some point in the past.

Roark is on his way to London with a grand business proposition which will secure not only his own future, but that of his mother and sister. He has secrets he cannot divulge and certainly isn't looking for or able to support a wife in his current situation. Yet he gets more and more smitten with the wary Miss Merriweather (she doesn't give him her full name) and when her dark past shows up unexpectedly at the inn, and she nearly suffers a repeat performance of her former attack, he doesn't even think before jumping in to defend her and pummelling her attacker.

After John beats up her rapist, saving Prudence from another nightmare scenario, she breaks down and finally tells someone about the (to her) deeply shameful secret about what happened years ago, and he comforts her, confessing that his sister once suffered the same fate as her. He is therefore fully aware of how scared and distrustful of men she must be. Even knowing that she may be scared, he proposes that they travel to London together, leaving the inn in case her attacker returns. They pose as man and wife on the road, and John's gentle treatment, understanding and patience gives Prudence hope that she may in time be able to trust another man again and possibly not recoil at being touched. But John's past is about to catch up with him too, and what will happen when Prudence discovers the secrets he's been hiding and the reasons he's in such a hurry to make it to London?

This romance deals with the aftermath of rape, and it doesn't in any way gloss over what happened to Prudence. The scene where she is attacked is graphically described, in a horrible inversion of the usual love scenes in such a book and there is no doubt that something terrible and irrevocable is done to a helpless young woman, whose life is never the same afterwards. Even now, rape is a horrible crime, but in a time when a woman's chief commodity was her virtue and she was seen as tainted goods and worthless if she lost it, rape took away any chance a woman had to make a good marriage. Prudence spends four years carefully making herself as unattractive and unobtrusive as possible, happily embracing her wallflower role, simply so she won't ever have to confess the truth about her tragic fate. When she meets a kind man who not only treats her gently but understands her pain, that is just as attractive to her as his physical beauty. Having kept her secret for so long, she's desperate to confide in someone.

John, absolutely furious about the trauma she's been through, not only beats her attacker within an inch of his life and drives him and his friend out of the inn, but insists on being allowed to show Prudence how to defend herself, as it's not fair that she go through life seeing herself only as a victim. She needs to reclaim her self worth, and his self defence lessons and the way he refuses to see her or treat her as ruined is a great help in making her start to blossom again.

The third and final of Maya Rodale's Bad Boys and Wallflowers, even with some rather melodramatic turns in the last third of the book and some pretty huge coincidences furthering the plot, this is by far the best in the series. Prudence is a lovely heroine, so strong and admirable for refusing to let her ordeal break her. John is a sensitive and understanding hero, who because of his unusual background is able to accept Prue's disgrace in a way most men in her peer group would not. I'm also not entirely sure if the ways in which the villain gets his comeuppance is historically accurate, but it felt very satisfying.

I read romances as a means of entertainment and escapism. In historical romances, I like being diverted by historical locations, pretty dresses, fancy titles and couples finding love, often across societal boundaries that are somewhat anachronistic. This book made me cry, more than once, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't just because I was pumped full of fertility hormones. Reading about a young woman having her entire future stolen from her in a savage attack is upsetting, and as Rodale points out in the afterword, many women of the past were driven to depression or suicide by such events. While other aspects of the book weren't perfect, I thought the main issue of the story and the love story between Prudence and John was very effective. Well worth checking out, as long as you're not sensitive about the darker side of the plot.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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