Reputation reads like Jane Austen set in a CW universe. Think of Jane Austen’s naive, thoughtless, and self-centered heroine Emma, in a fish-out-of-water situation like Austen’s other heroine Catherine Morland, except instead of the mostly decent Tilneys, we get a cast full of Wickhams. It’s a bit of a mish-mash of a novel that seems to be going for witty social commentary, but ultimately (to me anyway) falls short. The humour isn’t quite sharp enough to bite; the more earnest explorations of deeper social issues like rape, sexist double standards, and sexual assault aren’t quite developed enough to really land its mark; and with the exception of a few scenes, the characters feel more like roles than fully developed human beings. The romance subplot between Georgiana and Thomas is a highlight, mostly because of their witty banter over letters, and because Thomas seems genuinely sweet, but it was a minor thread in a more glossy story that never quite find its heart.
Middle-class heroine Georgiana Ellers gets drawn into a world of parties, drinking, and drugs when she meets the beautiful and charismatic Frances Campbell. Frances and her friends are all super wealthy; while enjoying a bit of snuff, one of them enthuses about how much better “peasant drugs” are, because the misery of poor people’s lives require much stronger doses to escape from. One of Frances’ friends Jane bluntly tells Georgiana that she doesn’t belong; all the super wealthy people at the parties can get as hedonistic as they want because their wealth will protect them from consequences, but Georgiana’s circumstances don’t offer her the same protection. A rude remark, but actually with a kernel of truth, and it’s a shame the story didn’t quite explore that as much as it could have. There’s a shopping scene where Georgiana feels the stark difference between her and Frances’ finances, but mostly, we don’t see much of how Georgiana’s partying affects her any worse than it does Frances.
That shopping scene was also a bit meh for another reason: the narration makes a big deal of how Georgiana gives what little money she has to a beggar, while Frances buys a million new outfits. And then Georgiana suggests they help the poor and Frances kinda brushes it off. Because of the novel’s confusing tone, I’m not quite sure how to read that scene: this is probably the only time Georgiana shows any interest in a social conscience, and despite giving alms to the beggar, it’s not like she suddenly goes off to volunteer at soup kitchens afterwards. So: is this scene meant to be satirical, poking gentle fun at Georgiana’s faux-conscience? Or is it meant to be earnest, like, look how much more superficial Frances and her friends are. I wasn’t sure, and so the scene just made me roll my eyes, but had little impact otherwise.
I think part of the confusion as well is that in many ways, the novel reads like a contemporary. The characters’ dialogue, their attitudes, even so much of how they approach things, feels contemporary. I know it’s Regency-era because of some nominal scenes where Georgiana’s aunt and uncle mention marriage and reputation, and because of how formal Thomas and Georgiana are with each other. But I can’t help feeling that we could transplant this novel into the 21st century without changing much. And it’s not that I don’t think heroines in the Regency era can have modern values. But I’ve read lots of historical romances where those modern values were portrayed really well within the atmosphere of the time period. I’m thinking of Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare’s books as examples, and there are lots of Harlequin historical romances that have forward-thinking heroines and on-point social commentary, while still very much feeling like a historical novel. In the case of Reputation, it feels like a CW adaptation where the CW elements took over.
All that being said, there are some things I did really like about this novel. I already mentioned enjoying the romance between Georgiana and Thomas; it’s sweet, it’s clever, and I looked forward to any scene where Thomas appeared. I also really like that Frances was bisexual, and that we actually see her in a romantic moment with another woman. The ending to Frances’ story was coyly done, but also really nice.
And finally, the cover art is fantastic! It’s the kind of art that I can imagine will translate very well to a poster, if this book does get picked up for a show.
Thank you to St Martin’s Press for an e-galley of this novel in exchange for an honest review.