Anyone who passed the 10th grade knows there are an awful lot of very good stories written about England in the 1800s, but stories set in the 20th century (what with all of its highways and cars) have always had a bit of a monopoly on road trips. Until now. In The Rogue Not Taken, author Sarah MacLean takes her leads and sets them off on a variety of adventure in carriages and mail coaches. They could be on the road to happiness; they could be on the road to ruin. But they’re most definitely on the road to northern England.
Type: Historical romance, specifically Regency romance.
The couple: Sophie Talbot’s family has committed one of the greatest sins known to literature by being “new money.” Her father got rich mining coal, became an earl after winning a poker game, and made instant and instantly scorned celebrities of his five daughters. Unlike her older sisters, Sophie has no interest in making the scandal pages or marrying into the aristocracy, but King, the Marquess of Eversley is so weighed down by his ego and baggage that he can’t be convinced that she wants anything other than to trick him into swapping vows. Honestly, the future duke could do with a few therapy sessions, but he’s so busy ruining the reputations of women trying to avoid marriages to men they don’t love that he doesn’t have time to work through his personal issues. This actually ends up working out pretty well for the book, in terms of both plot and character development.
Tropes: The family drama, enemies-to-lovers, and pretend marriage tropes thread through all romance subgenres, but the bathtub scene and cringe-worthy pun in the book title are tropes specific to historical romance.
The story: While attending a party with lords and ladies as far as the eye can see, Sophie finds her sister’s husband in the middle of – to put it delicately – totally banging another woman. She tosses her brother-in-law in a fishpond, as any good sister would do. Unfortunately, in addition to being a total garbage human, the brother-in-law is also a duke, and if there’s anything I can tell you about reading historical romance, it’s that being a duke is a really big deal. Anyway, Sophie is instantaneously cast out. She’s actually pretty ok with that, since “out” is generally where she prefers to be. But in the midst of making her grand escape, she encounters Eversley, who hurls a boot at her (unintentionally), insults her and her family (intentionally), and refuses to help her. Being smart and spunky in the way that 19th century literary English heroines tend to be, Sophie still uses Eversley’s carriage to extricate herself, inadvertently tying her story to his and creating a fortnight worth of drama. For those who don’t know, a fortnight is two weeks. This is less essential information than knowing that dukes are important, but still a fun fact.
How’s the sex? Consequential. Very consequential. This is England in 1833, so accidentally having too many pints of lager and making a regrettable decision leads to far more serious problems than a headache and a $16 early morning Uber. But MacLean makes the heightened stakes work in the favor of the story. Once Sophie and Eversley stop hating each other, the sexual tension builds in a way that wouldn’t be as realistic as a contemporary romance. Don’t worry though; much like today’s middle school students, English nobility seem to ascribe to pretty specific definition of sex, so things get pretty hot and heavy even before the couple finally goes “all the way.”
Is this book for you? This is a great book. The writing is snappy, the characters are well developed, and the emotion feels very real. The Rogue Not Taken is definitely going on my list of romance novels to recommend to people who are afraid of romance novels. In addition to crafting a good story and telling it well, MacLean lays an early foundation that deals with gender roles, class, and gossip. Those themes becomes less overt throughout the book, but even as the story focuses more on the love story, the criticism and context of society’s expectations allow the narrative to resonate with greater depth.
The only thing that struck me as a possible flaw in this book is how far MacLean lets Eversley go into the realm of douchebaggery, particularly early in the book. He consistently says genuinely mean things to Sophie, and though one could argue that his experience with women has jaded him, he seems to have no trouble finding the good in some women – specifically those he’s helped to “ruin.” It’s not a major flaw, and in the end it’s not enough to cause me any real issue with the story. But if Sophie had brought any girlfriends with her on this little adventure, this book would have only been 150 pages long. After that much of watching how Eversley treated Sophie, any friend worth her salt would have removed Sophie from the situation and told the good Marquess where he could stick his title.
Conclusion: Minor concerns with Eversley aside, this book has pretty much everything you could want in a love story: lying, family drama, 19th century insults, delayed gratification, and a labyrinth. If Jane Austen had lived in a time when they realized how much money you can make off of sequels, her comedic road trip follow-up to Pride and Prejudice would have been called Self-Righteousness and Arrogance, and it would have looked an awful lot like The Rogue Not Taken.