The Wallflower Wager by Tessa Dare
Wealthy and ruthless, Gabriel Duke clawed his way from the lowliest slums to the pinnacle of high society-and now he wants to get even.
Loyal and passionate, Lady Penelope Campion never met a lost or wounded creature she wouldn’t take into her home and her heart.
When her imposing-and attractive-new neighbor demands she clear out the rescued animals, Penny sets him a challenge. She will part with her precious charges, if he can find them loving homes.
Done, Gabriel says. How hard can it be to find homes for a few kittens? And a two-legged dog. And a foul-mouthed parrot. And a goat, an otter, a hedgehog…
Easier said than done, for a cold-blooded bastard who wouldn’t know a loving home from a workhouse. Soon he’s covered in cat hair, knee-deep in adorable, and bewitched by a shyly pretty spinster who defies his every attempt to resist. Now she’s set her mind and heart on saving him.
Not if he ruins her first.
Trigger warning: sexual assault and abuse, pedophilia. Penny describes her experiences but does not go into graphic detail.
I am writing a negative review for an author I never thought would disappoint me. I do not take this lightly but I really did not like this book.
I respect the fact that Penny’s experience as a sexual abuse victim will hold importance for survivors. I will not be treating sexual abuse and assault as a spoiler because not addressing this upfront would be disrespectful to survivors.
This book tries to make the cute fluffy animals into a funny joke. The joke does not land. The comedian stands there waiting for the laughs to come.
Crickets. Just a bunch of fucking crickets.
The Wallflower Wager is what it’s like to buy something only half done. It needed more work. The execution is terrible and sadly the character development is barely there at all. I don’t really feel like I ever got to know either of them despite having all these facts about them.
These two have less character development than a teaspoon.
Penny is the daughter of an earl. She’s an introvert who finds solace in the comfort of animals and preparing vegan sandwiches for her friends. Her neighbor, Gabriel Duke, rose up to the ranks into privileged society. He finds solace in tearing down titled rich assholes. Penny’s titled status makes selling his newly renovated house marketable. But Penny is threatened with spinsterhood by her family members. Together they try to prevent her family from taking over her life.
My favorite romances feature characters who rise up into privileged society just to tear it all down. I liked seeing the hero be the untitled one, rather than the heroine. Women are expected to reach up rather than down, as far as society is concerned. I love that Dare is thinking more about privilege and status in women’s relationships to men.
But I couldn’t connect with Penny at all. I really disliked the way she ignored her privilege, even when Gabriel told her upfront. The way she tried to guilt trip Gabriel for tearing down the privileged class is not something I felt she had the right to do, given she grew up with money and privilege coming out of her white ass.
“And you use this knowledge to your advantage. You seize on their vulnerability to take what they have left.”
“By perfectly legal means.”
“You don’t feel any sympathy for them?”
Yeah sounds good to me. Just burn the whole thing down. All good things here.
And when he explains where all their money comes from, whether from the king or from slavery, she makes it about a jab at her and people like her.
Honestly, I like that this critique is in here. I just could not get on board with Penny and her unchecked privilege. I’m not saying Gabe doesn’t also have privileges. He’s a man. He’s white. He’s cis. Probably heterosexual. That gives him a lot of mobility in this world she doesn’t have. But unchecked privilege in the upper classes really rubs me the wrong way.
Tessa Dare tries to have the light tone create nuance for the darker aspects of the book. If you’ve seen the Disney film Tangled you may understand how a light tone can do things for a dark plot point in the character’s story. Abuse is threaded through but the light tone shows how abuse can be hidden in plain sight. In that case, the lightness works beautifully for the overall execution of the film.
Dare’s light tone reached far too much for humor and ran into bad slapstick humor.
“Yes, but–” She bit her lip. “I need an animal in my bed.”
He could only stare at her.
“At home, I always have at least one in bed with me…”
She also tries to swim to catch the otter who escaped from her.
Roll your eyes. I’ll wait.
Dare uses the cuteness of the animals to bring a fun aspect to the novel. There are cute otters and kittens and goats. You’d think that would be great right? WRONG. There is a difference between watching the Teletubbies and a cute romcom. The humor ran into infantile rather than funny cuteness. And that’s honestly a surprise to me because I laughed my ass off when I read the first 2 books in this series.
I’d argue the animals are an easy and cheap way to avoid finding a way to create balance between the light tone and the dark backstory between these two characters. I understand why Penny relies on animals. But instead of it meshing with the tone it overrides it and starts to look out of place.
The problem with this book is the animals became a larger point compared to the chemistry between Gabriel and Penny. That should have been the focus. Instead, the animals and slapstick humor became the focus.
Trigger warning for sexual abuse and pedophilia:
Lastly, I am very concerned about something Penny says about her abuser.
On the day of her brother’s wedding, Penny had vowed that if Bradford and Alice ever had a baby girl, she would break her silence. No matter how painful. But they’d had only sons, thank heavens, and by now speaking the truth seemed pointless.
This makes a lot of assumptions about predators and abusers that come from heterosexual assumptions in society. I have a serious problem with this statement. It assumes that her abuser would not have abused boys because she is a girl. That is wrong on so many levels. It is a dangerous thing to perpetuate.
Beyond that, I had a hard time seeing the point at which Penny’s character development and sexual abuse met. A good story always adds in details about experiences that are difficult to talk about. The sexual abuse in this story robs Penny, and survivors like her, of individuality. It uses it as a plot twist and makes it the center of the romance.
This book hurts survivors rather than uplifts their stories.