Review – Behind the Courtesan by Bronwyn Stuart

Historical romance is my favorite genre, but sometimes I get tired of some of the obvious heroine tropes that are available… You know what I mean – the bluestocking heroine who finds her brainy hero, the innocent heroine who almost always gets paired with a notorious seducer of women and then charms him into monogamy with her innocence and “inner strength” (if you know what I mean), the spinster heroine who finally allows herself to be seen and snaps up her perspicacious hero, the otherwise quite normal heroine whose family’s penury forces her into a marriage of convenience that eventually becomes less convenient, more loving… When written well, I definitely enjoy stories that feature these kinds of heroines, but I tend to get excited about authors whose characters are a little more outside the box.

For example, I dig stories that feature courtesans as heroines, particularly when an author uses that type of character to have a discussion about women’s limited options throughout history and the societal assumptions and pressures that further narrow those options.  In that regard, Behind the Courtesan did not disappoint.

Cover image, Behind the Courtesan by Bronwyn Stuart

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

When courtesan Sophia Martin returns to the village she fled as a young woman, she knows it won’t be a happy reunion–but she can’t refuse her brother’s request to attend his expectant wife. Trapped until the baby arrives, she must navigate the social rift she caused when she left to pursue a disreputable life–and keep the true reason for her departure from the man she once loved, the bastard son of the Duke who ruined her.

Blake Vale has never forgotten Sophia, but he can’t accept the decisions she made, the courtesan’s life she leads, or the fact she’s cast aside her true self. Plain old Sophia has to be inside this hardened woman somewhere, and he’s determined to make her see she doesn’t need rich men to be happy, and that their future has nothing to do with the past.

When the dukedom suddenly falls within his reach, Blake must come to terms with his own past and his birthright, and what that means for his future…and Sophia.

The theme throughout this book is that behind  the mask every courtesan wears, there is a woman who made a difficult choice and who has to live with the consequences.  Most of the story involves Sophia’s struggle to be seen as a woman rather than as an object created by her life experiences, and I enjoyed Bronwyn Stuart’s depiction of that struggle.  Sophia is a well-drawn, complex character who possesses a lovely strength.  Her story is heartbreaking and all too real, and her journey from grief and shame to a self-acceptance of sorts made for a beautiful, emotional read.

To be honest, I pretty much loved all the parts of this book that didn’t relate to the romance between the two main characters.  But wait, you say, isn’t this a romance novel? Surely the point of the book is that the love story — the romance — between the two main characters is interesting and compelling.  You’re right (and don’t call me Shirley), and that’s the problem with this book.  Actually, the hero, Blake, is the problem with this book.  He’s way too whiny.

As an aside, I like the original version of this song because I live a life secluded from current pop culture (so I haven’t heard the song a bazillion times), but I like it even better when it’s sung by an enthusiastic Dutch choir.

Blake spends most of the book whining about how Sophie left him — a decade ago — when she was 14 and he was not much older, about his sucky childhood and his abandonment fantasies, about how awful it is that Sophie chose to life the life of a whore rather than marry him (not that he asked, mind… they were kids…), and on and on…  As if the whining weren’t enough to make him a less than sympathetic character, he also takes every opportunity to treat Sophia poorly, to make sure that she knows that she made a bad choice when she was 14.  Though Sophia tries to explain a few times that he might not understand all the circumstances surrounding her disappearance all those years ago, Blake doesn’t listen.  At the end, once someone else fully explains Sophia’s back story, Blake finally realizes how wrong he was, but it was too little, too late for me as a reader.  I found that I wasn’t actually rooting for him, because he was just such a douchebag that I didn’t want him to get a happily ever after with a character as awesome as Sophia.  In fact, I wanted to poke him in the eye with a stick.

For a romance novel, it’s hard to have a more serious flaw than a bad romance.  Behind the Courtesan is well written, well paced, and its heroine is beautifully crafted, but none of that matters when you’re enraged by the main story line.  That said, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Bronwyn Stuart’s future books, because I definitely enjoy her writing style.  Even though the romance irritated me, I had a hard time putting the book down because I was so captivated by the story.  I just hope Blake’s characterization is a one-off.

Behind the Courtesan was released on April 23, 2013 by Carina Press.  For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Bronwyn Stuart, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Carina Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*