Almost A Gentleman by Pam Rosenthal had elements that should have had me glued to the pages - cross-dressing tortured heroine, a hero who is a charming mix of gentleman in society but a "satyr" in bed, a brief appearance of William Blake, a mystery to ponder, a relationship that delivers steam and heat between hero and heroine in ways most historical romances shy away from, some intriguing, interesting secondary characters including a male prostitute as heroine's past sexual partner, and pretty brilliant writing in parts to boot. But I was not glued. Instead, I struggled and bitched and moaned and struggled some more and put it down and picked it back up determined to finish it. Unfortunately, throughout most of the book all I felt was an alarming detachment from the characters and the story which surprised and disappointed and puzzled me.
Phizz Marston has been living life as a gentleman in London society for three years. His nickname - Phizz - was given to him by the dandy set because he's never seen drinking anything other than the very best champagne.
It never made him tipsy; he claimed that it ran in his veins. (8)
He is fashionable in an understated, elegant 'Beau' Brummell way, he has a "cold, unerring eye for style" be it hatbrims, a bon mot, a young ladies outdated sleeves, or in determining who, as Heidi Klum says, is in and who is out. Phizz sits at the coveted bow window of White's critiquing all the ton as they pass by and can blackball prospective gentlemen from clubs with a well-placed comment on his unfortunate choice of shoe black or his lack of finesse in tying his cravat. He can rescue a wallflower or some unfortunate bumpkinette fresh from the country and render her a success by singling her out for a dance or a bit of conversation. Phizz has power and freedom and enjoys it to the fullest. Phizz is also the woman once known in another life as Phoebe Claringworth, once a wife and mother and now widowed and childless. Only a select few know Phizz and Phoebe are one in the same, but someone outside her circle has discovered the truth and has begun sending her troubling, nasty notes full of venom, hate, and deadly threats.
David Arthur Saint George Hervey, Earl of Linseley, is a 40-year old widower come to London to debate and vote on the Enclosure Acts as well as to look for a potential bride to take back with him to Lincolnshire. David is a charming mix of aristocrat and gentleman farmer, one who blushes and stammers a little when under stress but who can, at times, also bluster and breath fire as well as any alpha male in romance, especially sexually. His first marriage to an innkeeper perfectly exemplifies his unconventionality more than anything else David says or does. David and his first wife came together to alleviate loneliness, to scratch an itch, married when she became pregnant, lived apart all their married life, and raised their son to have one foot in his father's aristocratic world and the other in his mother's more common roots. I really loved the way he is written as earthy and passionately dominant and assertive sexually but is gentle, complaisant and yielding to Phizz/Phoebe in most other ways.
I loved how Pam Rosenthal mixed up some tropes in Almost A Gentelman. Switching up the dominant/submissive roles between Phizz/Phoebe and David was one element executed very well indeed. Phoebe took on a bit of the "rake" role reserved for males in historical romance with her arrangement with Billy the prostitute while David was the more romantic and idealistic character - sighing over her name, imagining a future of blissful domesticity with his 'dear' and 'darling' Phoebe, comparing her name as musical accompaniment to his fantasies and daydreams. And then reversing the roles again when they come together sexually. That element alone made for a pretty powerful dynamic between them. I thought David's mild reaction to being attracted to a young man was yet another way Pam Rosenthal excelled at crafting an unconventional hero.
Their first meeting is at Almack's across a crowded ballroom floor. Phizz has taken a young miss who's wearing last season's sleeves and a silly ruffled dress under his wing and is waltz with her. David, on the sidelines with his friend, is discussing the pitfalls of the marriage mart and bemoaning a certain lack of finesse in his ability to waltz when his eye is caught by a couple waltzing, especially the gentleman leading the young lady.
Yes, that's how it should be done, he thought. There was a purity, a concentration to the young man's swift steps, a perfection to the set of his hips and shoulders, joy of movement elevated to art through intense control and mastery.
Of course that's how it's done, Linseley thought. It was how all the important things in life were done - from the body's center. It was how you guided a horse over a gate, heaved a forkful of hay onto a wagon, took a woman to bed. This new dance led one's thoughts to lovemaking: no wonder there had been such consternation in fashionable circles when the waltz had been introduced. The couple whirled back into the crowd; losing sight of them, Lord Linseley stared at the space they'd occupied, astonished and rather shaken by the feelings that had seized him. (9-10)
David decides he will ask the young lady to dance except he can't actually remember what she looks like. Images of the young man, on the other hand, are clear and powerful. While he searches for the couple to better see the young lady, Phizz and his partner twirl into view again.
A quick turn. A flash of exquisitely polished pumps followed by a flutter of gauzy white ruffled skirt. Linseley raised his eyes: the black-clad young man was looking at him over the lady's shoulder. The earl found himself staring back into gray eyes flecked with gold, under straight, rather heavy black brows.
Thank God they'd whirled away again. (10)
David acknowledges his attraction to the young man, 'a bolt of strange cold lightning' as their eyes met and though he is confused and disoriented by the feelings he's experiencing, he doesn't pound on his chest in alpha outrage. It's a great scene and a wonderfully tension-filled 'first meet' between hero and heroine. Unfortunately, Phizz's masquerade is uncovered by David much too soon to explore David's conflicting attraction to Phizz. It was, for me, a lost opportunity.
Speaking of lost opportunities. If I had to settle on one major criticism of Almost A Gentleman it would be that there were many other such lost opportunities presented throughout the book, events and themes bordering on brilliantly subversive but then not fully executed. It felt as though the writer had loaded her gun, aimed straight and true, but then never pulled the trigger. Very anticlimactic. Maybe this is why I found it so hard to finish this book. I would begin to think it was heading in a completely different and unique path only to discover it was devolving into the expected and ordinary. For example, I would have loved that Phizz and David kiss before David discovers 'he' is really a 'she'. In fact, David very easily and very quickly discovers Phizz is really Phoebe, and, for me, his discovery watered the tension factor down from blazing to barely a flicker. David and Phoebe almost immediately realize it's 'love' they feel for each other so conflict based on David and/or Phoebe working through their baggage, pasts, and feelings was never realized. Plus, the only obstacle to Phoebe completely abandoning Phizz forever was based on her inability to have more children and withholding that information from David until late in the book. When he does learn she is infertile, David quickly, much too quickly, bears up and races after her to ensure he loves her, all of her, not just her ability to produce more little Davids and Phoebes. And then, I'll be damned if the epilogue didn't include yet another miraculous child borne from Phoebe's body, the product of their perfect true love. Billy the prostitute and his arrangement with Phoebe, are not fully realized as the powerful message their relationship is - Phoebe's decision to embrace her sexuality as freely as any man. Billy just disappears into the servant ether as a rehabilitated assistant steward-cum-veterinarian to Mr. Goulding once Phoebe and David start having hot monkey sex at his country estate. The mystery of who is sending those nasty notes is put on the back burner while David and Phoebe explore all the positions of the Kama Sutra at David's Lincolnshire estate. When the villain is revealed, there is no retribution. At all. This villain and accomplice really, really deserved retribution.
Overall, reading Almost A Gentleman left me feeling frustrated and puzzled. Somewhat similar to the frustration Arthur Dent feels when the Nutrimatic Drinks Dispenser analyzes taste buds, metabolism and taste centers but still delivers a drink that is 'almost but not quite' what he most wants - a good cuppa tea. Almost A Gentleman delivers an 'almost, but not quite' historical romance that could have blazed paths and subverted some tropes in new and fascinating ways but for all those missed opportunities.