Will Blackshear is back from war with £800 and a tonne of guilt. He meets Lydia Slaughter in a gaming den when trying to win money to assuage his guilt by providing for a widow. So far, so historical romance conventional. Lydia fleeces him. She doesn't exactly cheat at cards, but she's a mathematical genius and she knows when the odds are in her favor. She's also the mistress (in the kept woman sense, not the femdom sense) of another man, 'work' which she actively enjoys. Will is immediately attracted to her and Lydia gets to that a little later.
Lydia and Will come to an uneasy alliance: they both need money and they are willing to work as a team to get it. Lydia has the mental alacrity to count cards, but lacks the gender and the capital needed to gamble successfully. Will isn't so smart, but can manage to follow directions. So they begin a chaste (though hardly virtuous) relationship, gambling together and fighting together quite a bit too.
It takes until over half way through the book for them even to kiss. And when they do finally fuck, it is just that. It isn't a beautiful, inspiring act, totally different from anything either of them have either known. Oh no. They are both too messed up for that. Lydia is a masochist and uses sex violently to calm her demons. She's a very active and demanding masochist though - a dominant masochist? Or perhaps just manipulative and goading. Take for instance this exchange, where Lydia wants Will to fuck her harder:
"Harder. Hurt me." Her voice was a feral snarl and her face half contorted with loathing.So Lydia's not really the tepid or pathetic sort of masochist. I'm not convinced either that she's submissive; she offers to beg at one point but she really likes to give orders. I feel too, that her masochism could switch to sadism very easily. If anything, she uses men to work out her kink. And she uses kink to work out her guilt. Lydia took up prostitution with the idea of using it as a fun form of suicide and is surprised to find that not only does it not kill her, it reveals a strong core of her which very much wants to live.
"I can't. I don't want to." There was a way to ask for such things, and it wasn't the way she'd just done. He'd tell her so afterward, if she was still inclined to speak to him then. At the moment he couldn't spare the breath.
She writhed underneath him and took a new grip on his arms. "You said you'd do what I wanted. My way first, your way after. We agreed."
I like Lydia best when she's strong and triumphant: When she calmly collects her winnings from the table with a little smile. Or when she is angrily frustrated with Will because he can't understand that three-eights is greater than five-fourteenths (I know, what an idiot eh. ;) ). And her success in sex too:
I did this. I gave him what he thought I couldn't. His seed and his cock and his climax are mine.I'm not keen on her masochist side, though in a way the quote above shows that it's a powerful tool in this particular relationship - a foil to the tenderness and togetherness that Will wants. And in a funny sort of way, they both get what they need, rather than what they think they want. Will, whose guilt makes him crave a tender forgiveness, gets this from Lydia when he tells her the story:
"You're not a good man, Blackshear," she whispered.That's love from Lydia, which perhaps says everything about her contradictions as a character. She recognizes when being punished would heal, because that's what she has done to herself. She also perhaps finds her own salvation in punishing Will - a rather sadistic sort of completion really. When Lydia confesses her misdeed, she gets a more tender sort of love, but it's the action of condemning Will in his guilt that seems to free Lydia to love him.
"I know." It felt like a pound of flesh given up. He closed his eyes.
"You break your promises and you fuck other men's women and you haven't even a soul to your name."
A shaft of hot, grief-tainted pleasure stabbed through him. "I know." He jerked his chin in a nod.
I'm not sure if any of that makes sense really, or even if I've correctly interpreted the emotional story in the book. It's complicated, as real people are, and I enjoyed that. It's just one way that this is an unusual book for its genre - I won't list for you all the amusing and brilliant ways that Grant has subverted cliches of historical romance. If you don't know them already, you won't appreciate them any more for me saying what they are and if you do, I won't spoil for you all the fun of finding out.
I love Lydia's bold and uncompromising personality. Will on the other hand never quite worked for me and I'm having a lot of trouble articulating why. I think it's that we never quite see him trust Lydia and allow her to make the decisions and I think that he should. He keeps things on an even-ish footing between them and I wish that he would accept her as his female authority and have done.
TL,DR: Compulsively readable story of two complicated characters, with a strong emotional BDSM sort of feeling. A determined and ruthless heroine who teeters on the edge of being dominant, but never quite makes it.
I won't re-read A Gentleman Undone with the frequency or enjoyment that I do A Lady Awakened, but I'm really pleased that I read it. It's excellent, with the intensity and elegant phrasing which is being revealed as Grant's style. I don't really engage with either Lydia or Will's pain, but that's to do with me, not the book I think. The plot (I know, I've barely mentioned that) is well paced and gripping and the watching these two work around each other and finally together, in every sense, is compulsive. Overall, it's a B+ I think.