An Offer From A Gentleman, by Julia Quinn
The Bridgerton series has been known for its problematic portrayals of sexuality, and this book is no exception to that. This is lamentable, because although the heroine of this story is admittedly a bit of a runner (which is, in light of her story, quite understandable), the two lead characters could be said to suit each other, except that the portrayal of these characters is so problematic. Indeed, this book contains not only a near-rape of the heroine by some obvious loutish young men who do not respect her refusal of their advances and think that she, as a servant, has no right to refuse them, but her rescuer from this fate, the hero of the story, ends up taking action that might be considered as a power rape in seeking to coerce the unwilling heroine into being his mistress, which she, for very understandable reasons, refuses to do, until he has to save her life/freedom by proposing marriage to her. All of this makes this novel nowhere near as romantic as it thinks it is, which is a great shame because the heroine of this story in particular shows a lot of spunk in the face of a traumatic and abusive life that is deeply admirable. It’s just a shame the author doesn’t know how to bring these two together in a way that does not merely increase the trauma of her existence.
By all rights, this particular novel exists on the borderline between romance and melodrama. As I have stated on several occasions, melodrama is not a mood that I object to and it is certainly a mood that I can identify with. And this particular book has the makings of a Lifetime movie, or a contemporary Cinderellaesque fairy tale, about a young woman who was the illegitimate daughter of an earl who is raised in an ambiguous position between servant and daughter, and when her father dies she is shamelessly exploited by her stepmother, who absolutely hates that she can see her dead husband in his by-blow. Sophie is given a chance, through the machinations of the servants, to pretend to be an eligible member of the ton for one magical night, where of course she snags the attention of the second Bridgerton son, Benedict, who is fascinated by her and tries to find out who she is, something which takes years. He saves her, she saves him by tending to him in his illness, and he seems unable to find a way to make her stay without abusing his power as a well-connected and well-privileged gentleman. And if the ending is a happy ending, it comes in a deus ex machina fashion that will probably play well on television.
The reader of this book is invited to ask questions of the way that this novel handles the relationship between its two leads. Is it wise on the part of Benedict Bridgerton to trust his heart to a skittish young woman whose characteristic response to difficult situations is to gather her meager physical possessions and make a run for it? Is the fairy tale ending of this book enough to give her other and better ways to cope with the difficulties of life than to run away? Can we expect a happy future between a man who rescued his wife from would-be rapists and a woman who was treated as a near slave during her youth? What is it about the mysteriousness of Sophie that makes her so attractive to Benedict? Is it problematic that he is instantly drawn to someone who is so radiantly happy merely to be accepted as part of the elite that she has some birthright to rather than taking it for granted as so many people do? Why does Benedict take advantage of his privilege, and how is this both a good thing and a bad thing for Sophie? Why is Sophie so reluctant to fess up about her identity even after becoming aware of the Bridgertons and their shrewdness as well as their kindness? If you read this book, you will likely have all of these questions and more, and the answers point to this being a more ambivalent and ambiguous novel than it seeks out to be.