Disclaimer: This book has been out since 1999 and I think I'm the last romance reader on the planet to read it - but just in case....this review will be riddled with spoilers. Also, I listened to this on audio and one of my chief gripes may be because I listened to it on audio. I'll be curious to see if folks who "read" this book feel the same way I did about a certain scene.I'm a sucker for a good Pygmalion story and the premise of The Proposition by Judith Ivory is one that intrigues. That is, what if My Fair Lady wasn't a lady but a lad? Our hero is Mick Tremore, affable London rat catcher who finds himself being made over by Lady Edwina Bollash, discarded relation to a sour old distant cousin (a Duke) who makes her way in the world schooling young misses navigating society. There's a to-do in a tea house which brings Mick to the attention of the twin Lords, Emile and Jeremy Lamont. The Lamonts like to amuse themselves with various bets and wagers and think it would be great fun to see if Edwina can make over Mick to the point where they can pass him off as a Viscount at her sour old cousin's annual ball. There's no love lost between Edwina and the Duke, plus she's fascinated by Mick's blend of cockney and Cornish speech patterns - so why not?
So where did it all go wrong? Well, not a lot happens in this book - at least until the final 5 or 6 chapters. Mick flirts, keeps calling Edwina "Winnie," takes her to a pub to show her a good time, and wheedles her (and not in a good way) incessantly. Winnie is conflicted over her feelings for Mick, propriety and wrestles with her own feelings of self-worth. I know this book is late Victorian, but honestly this felt like a Traditional Regency idea bloated up to give us 380+ pages. But Ivory can write. Her world-building is very good. I felt like I was reading a historical and not a modern piece with characters wearing costumes. So even though the plot and conflict are a bit thin, the world-building kept me engaged.
There are bigger issues at play here though. The first major stumbling block I had was during the scenes were Edwina is needling Mick to shave off his mustache. What follows is quid pro quo. Winnie is a tall woman with legs that drive Mick wild. Basically he'll shave off the mustache if she lifts her skirts to show off her legs. Which in an era where it was a shocking scandal to expose your ankle - you can understand Winnie's horror. But she wants the mustache gone. However Mick keeps upping the ante, finding loopholes to create more demands - to the point where Winnie is practically in tears. On the audio version her discomfort is palpable. I don't know if I would have had the same reaction had I read the book as opposed to having a narrator read me the book - but Mick basically comes off as bullying a gentle woman - someone raised in an environment where being comfortable with her own body and sexuality was basically unheard of. It's not forced seduction, but Winnie's state during these scenes made me, as the listener, extremely uncomfortable. Honestly I can't believe I kept listening, but I did.
It took a while for me to get over all that. I don't expect my romance heroes to be paragons of virtue, but I do expect them to treat the heroine with some respect. And those moments where Mick is pressing Winnie, wheedling her, had me squirming in my seat - and not in a good way.
After that unpleasantness, we're back to not a lot happening until it's time to find out if Mick the Rat Catcher can successfully fool the ton at the Duke's ball into thinking he's Michael the Viscount.
And this would be where the book completely jumps the shark.
Judith Ivory cops out. She totally and completely cops out on this story with the Fairy Tale ending. Because it turns out that Mick is NOT a Rat Catcher. He's NOT some working class slob from Cornwall. OH NOES!!!! He's actually the long-lost grandson of the Duke who was kidnapped when he was a toddler!
BECAUSE OF COURSE HE IS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Gee, it would have been too darn messy to have Mick actually BE a Rat Catcher. To actually have him BE a working class slob and for the author to flex some muscles to figure out how to make the happy ending between a Rat Catcher and a Lady work. OH NOES!!!! Let's just make him the long lost heir to a Dukedom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Am I being too hard on this book? It was written in 1999, published by a major publisher who probably loved the fairy tale ending. But here's the thing - I don't think I am. This was just as much of a cop-out 17 years ago as it is today. I'm sorry, it is. I want my romantic couple to have to work for their happy ending, not to just have a Dukedom conveniently fall in their laps from the sky.
All of which highlights some amazing (and sloppy storytelling) coincidences. The Lamonts just happened to find Mick who just happened to be the Duke's long lost grandson and they all just happened to meet Lady Edwina, the Duke's distant, discarded cousin in a tea shop and she just happened to agree to their bet to polish him up. So on and so forth.
And never mind that the Duke has no love for Edwina and basically calls her ugly and an idiot in front of Mick and HE SAYS NOTHING TO DEFEND HER! After she's poured her soul out to Mick on how her family ignored her, belittled her and dismissed her her whole life. No, Mick will just buy her a pretty dress and get back the house she grew up in for her and la de da.
Seriously. I don't get it.
In fact I really don't get it because over the years one of the few criticisms I've read of this book is that Winnie is a "snob."
WELL OF COURSE SHE IS!!!! She's a frickin' Lady who has been stuck in society her whole life.
But no mention is made of the mustache scene and the cop-out ending or the amazing coincidences that lead our characters on this whole merry chase.
I have no idea how to grade this one. I'm so irritated by the glowing love for this book and my visceral reaction to it that this probably should be a D. But the world-building is too good and the writing too solid for me in good conscience slap it with such a grade. No matter how irritated I am.
Final Grade = C-