My Fake Rake by Eva Leigh
In the first book in Eva Leigh’s new Union of the Rakes series, a bluestocking hires a faux suitor to help her land an ideal husband only to be blindsided by real desire…
Lady Grace Wyatt is content as a wallflower, focusing on scientific pursuits rather than the complications of society matches. But when a handsome, celebrated naturalist returns from abroad, Grace wishes, for once, to be noticed. Her solution: to “build” the perfect man, who will court her publicly and help her catch his eye. Grace’s colleague, anthropologist Sebastian Holloway, is just the blank slate she requires.
In exchange for funding his passage on an expedition leaving London in a few months, Sebastian allows Grace to transform him from a bespectacled, bookish academic into a dashing—albeit fake—rake. Between secret lessons on how to be a rogue and exaggerated public flirtations, Grace’s feelings for Sebastian grow from friendship into undeniable, inconvenient, realattraction. If only she hadn’t hired him to help her marry someone else…
Sebastian is in love with brilliant, beautiful Grace, but their bargain is complete, and she desires another. Yet when he’s faced with losing her forever, Sebastian will do whatever it takes to tell her the truth, even if it means risking his own future—and his heart.
Trigger Warning: scenes of social anxiety and panic attacks.
“I’m happy,” she said, urgent. “I’m happy that if I’m to be mad, it’s with you.”
Imagine Chris Evan with glasses. Got it? Okay now Chris Evans is geeky and has lots of insecurities and some major social anxiety problems. He is very in love with his geeky co-star. She takes his glasses off and tells him how devastatingly handsome he is. If that is interesting to you (and why wouldn’t it really) than this book is for you.
Eva Leigh plays with the old misogynistic tropes of the genre and flips it entirely. The most obvious is the old trope where the hero takes the heroine’s glasses off and GASP he realizes how beautiful she is. With women, there’s a reason this is so misogynistic. In a world where women are expected to be perfect and that perfection determines their mobility in the world, that trope diminishes the value of women. But if you flip it around to men, whose appearances are typically not determined by their worth and likeability in the world? It suddenly becomes a fun and feminist trope. I’m very okay with this. The hero’s friends even tease him for it. That’s just delightful cuteness.
Thus, the smarty pants of Madam Leigh.
Grace is the daughter of an earl but that’s her status. She’s a herpetologist. She’s the guy friend (Keith) in Some Kind of Wonderful. Sebastian is not titled but an impoverished scholar (his father disinherited him). He’s scrappy and bookish. He is one member of the Union of the Rakes (a group of boys who banded together after spending the British upper-class version of detention together). Think Harry Potter meets The Breakfast Club but they’re rich and they don’t have any wands. Just one incredibly British prologue that made this girl very happy.
Grace asks Sebastian for his help in attracting another scholar’s notice (Mason Fredericks). Sebastian, his friend the Duke of Rotherby, and Grace make Sebastian into her fake rake. He goes from pre-Queer Eye hero to happy and gorgeous Queer Eye makeover.
“Look at me.” He spread his hands. “I’m just a tongue-tied scholar in scuffed boots. The idea that anyone would mistake me for a suave man about town is ludicrous.”
This is a love letter to those of us with social anxiety. Typically, the shy and insecure love interest is the heroine. Nope. Instead we get Chris Evans with glasses and daddy issues. Sebastian gets a panic attack every time someone he doesn’t know begins to talk to him. Grace helps him figure out how to ease his anxiety. It made me uproariously happy to see friends gather to help each other with their anxieties. I never felt that Seb’s anxiety is magically fixed. It’s a part of him. Grace just helps him manage it. As someone with anxiety and panic attacks, I felt the anxiety represented to be accurate.
Side note: I should also give appreciation to the author for putting that trigger warning in her acknowledgments.
People with social anxiety don’t just have anxiety with strangers but also to their closest friends. Being honest with those close to us is the hardest thing of all because anxiety makes the fear of rejection worse. It stops us from being honest with our friends and family. That is what Sebastian must face with Grace.
Grace is the hero who doesn’t recognize what is right in front of her. Except she’s the flipped gender expectation. People that don’t like flipped gender tropes may not get on board with the heroine because she is very much placed in the hero’s role rather than a typical gender role for a woman. In her, we get to see how that plays out in a heroine instead of a hero. If you only like the hero to be the one who doesn’t recognize he’s in love with the heroine then I’d recommend skipping this one.
This is not a torture your loved one romance that is so common in the genre. It’s a friendship. It’s a makeover/ friends-to-lovers romance. Two things I don’t usually like because they’re so often misogynistic. I don’t like friends-to-lovers romances because women become something for her friend to objectify and sexualize. It usually has a friend zone expectation and puts everything on the heroine. Leigh revises all the misogynistic habits in friends-to-lovers romances. The hero is very aware of how women are often objectified. He feels shame whenever he catches himself looking at her in a way a friend shouldn’t, which I appreciated.
“Men and women can be friends,” Seb declared hotly, “without things becoming romantic or sexual.”
The only caveat I have is that internal monologue sometimes tends to veer a little into repetitive.
We have this idea that ogling your friend’s body is okay if it’s a friends-to-lovers romance. I’d argue with that. It is never okay to look at your friend as something to fuck. Sebastian is very careful to respect his friend as a human being and does not objectify her. He is not one of those heroes constantly thinking about how his body is responding to her. Eva Leigh is revising the more normalized misogyny in romance and that makes her a feminist star of the genre.
“Jealousy isn’t appreciated by women. We’re not things. There’s nothing flattering about being treated like an object.”
Do you see the feminist narratives going on here? I had to stop so many times because it made me so emotional to read so much feminism in a single book.
Lastly, I want to appreciate the diversity that occurs in this book. It made me feel happy to see so many BIPOC side characters. Librarians and restaurateurs and friends.
Now, I want to talk about Sebastian’s occupation as an anthropologist. My opinion about historical romance is that it isn’t exactly historical and more in the realm of contemporary fantasy. Fiction critiques the past and finds something to say about the present. That is what this book is doing. It’s doing that in terms of privilege, both with titled white people and men. Grace dislikes that she lives in a world where she has to ask her male friend to highlight her own status in her society. There are a lot of men checking their privileges.
The one thing about contemporary fantasies is they must not erase history. This is why dukes are a problem. As slaveowners, they are the rule and not the exception. I read a review for this book that lamented at the Duke of Rotherby being described as arrogant while also feeling Sebastian’s occupation has too much of a racist history.
I have news for you.
Dukes AND anthropological professions were a problem because of their inhumanity concerning BIPOC. Not all anthropologists concerned themselves with BIPOC cultures but a lot of them did. That’s sort of the problem with Sebastian’s profession. It painted a lot of cultures as animalistic in the same way other scientists studied extinct cultures or animals. Leigh, however, paints Sebastian as studying rural British communities and not indigenous cultures. The very thing he got in trouble for involves his arguments against popular scientists’ opinions. He even makes a comment about how using smudge is racist and disingenuous to North American indigenous cultures. If we’re going to have a discussion on this let’s not make out dukes to be the good guys. I appreciate Leigh acknowledging the racism of the anthropological field and the racism of white people of the English empire.
“Many of them drip with a sense of cultural and racial superiority-and they twist science to defend abhorrent ideas and practices.”
I don’t feel that it does any good to make the titled ton to be the good guys and scientists to be the bad guys. In history, both were bad. What I think Leigh is doing is bringing it into contemporary thought and having the modern reader look at the racism rather than forgetting. This history is tied to the racist world we currently live in. She has privileged people checking themselves in the same way modern white readers must check our own. White people are part of this privilege. I’m glad that is being acknowledged here.
“Now you can study London high society, too.” She spread her hands encouragingly. “Just imagine the book you could write. A thorough investigation into British courtship rituals of both commoners and nobility.”
This entire book is about acknowledging privilege. Leigh is making the conversation difficult. She does not take the easy way out. This book doesn’t let white titled people feel comfortable. It forces us to look at ourselves and at European history.
Now for the things I didn’t like:
Grace and Sebastian are joining a project reporting on the damage done by the British Empire’s designs on South America. However, I have a problem with the epilogue. It would have been better if Leigh clarified that it’s an environmental and anti-colonial project rather than some white savior nonsense. They aren’t going to contact the indigenous populations there, but it did say “report” on the empire’s damaging impact on South America. It just feels a little too invasive and makes it seem like indigenous cultures aren’t already fighting against colonizers. I am typically not a big fan of epilogues. All the god damn baby-logues everywhere. I’m not happy about this three-page thing at the end, despite its good intentions.
I loved most of this book up until the boat scene. That felt a little too convenient for me. Even though I loved this book, I am lowering my grade due to the epilogue and the slight implausibility of one scene.
This book is very memorable and one of the more feminist romance novels I’ve read. It’s attentive to acknowledging privilege and it’s aware of the misogyny of the bodice ripper romances. Both the hero and the heroine acknowledge their privileges in this world. As someone who works very hard to do that myself, it put a smile on my face. It made me absurdly happy to see nerdy Chris Evans fall in love with his nerdy best friend.