Joe Sprat may be nothing but a shoe shine, but he has a dream. Saving pennies at a time, he longs to open up his own shoe store and sell fine Italian shoes rather than shine them for London’s finest gentlemen. With his own shop, he’ll be able to give his hard-working mother a long-deserved chance to rest and prove that, while he may be common, he may not be consigned to living in the gutter.
As luck would have it, Arthur Lawton and his friend Granville happen to pass by Joe Sprat’s shoe shine stand one particularly muddy morning. These lifelong friends are fond of making wagers. One point they’ve long contested is this: is an English gentleman born or made? While Granville believes it is simply not possible to transition from a commoner to a peer, Arthur is adamant that anyone may pass for the upper crust in the drawing rooms, dance parties, and other social events—he just has to have the proper tutelage. They seize upon the shoe shine, with his rough working hands and coarse language. Having obviously heard the entire exchange, Joe readily agrees to participate in their wager.
The terms are simple: in a matter of weeks, Arthur may educate Joe in the mannerisms, behaviors, customs, and modes of speech used by the gentry. In order to determine whether Arthur has succeeded in teaching Joe to be a gentleman, Joe simply has to pass muster at a society event. For Joe, it’s a win-win situation. For one thing, Arthur has agreed to pay Joe the handsome sum of twenty pounds just for participating, never mind whether or not Arthur wins the bet against Granville. For another thing, Joe will walk away knowing how to pass as a higher class of man—surely something that will help him achieve his dream of opening his own shoe store. With that twenty pounds and a crash course in being gentlemanly, the deal is too good for Joe to pass up.
What’s more, Joe suspects Arthur may be a man with certain, specific tastes—inclinations that Joe himself shares. From the very their first, with Arthur seated in Joe’s shoe shine chair, they share knowing glances. The heat only grows once Joe relocates to Arthur’s stately city home and they begin working day in and day out to shape Joe into a new man. As if things needed to get any better, Joe and Arthur discover they actually enjoy one another’s company. Arthur is thrilled with the task of teaching Joe and is convinced that class alone does not a man make. Meanwhile, Joe learns invaluable social niceties bound to help him get ahead while discovering that Arthur isn’t a vapid fop of a man. It doesn’t take long for their mutual spark of attraction to burst into a raging fire of desire.
Yet as good as everything is, neither Joe nor Arthur can quite ignore the fact that this wager is a temporary arrangement only. When the big event comes and goes, each will have to return to his own life. Gone will be the enticing sex and even more enticing romance. For their own self-preservation, they each privately decide it best to cut the other out of his life as if it never happened.
The blurb of this story clearly informs the reader that this book is a retelling of My Fair Lady/Pygmalion. I think Dee does a marvelous job establishing, through the prose, the rough and common side Joe represents, as well as the refined life of a gentleman that Arthur represents. Over the course of the book, this distinction between class grows ever smaller as Joe learns more and more what it takes to pass as a peer. Big points for such attention to detail! I felt this was reflected not only in the dialogue, but also the narrative descriptions as well.
With our characters, I like how well defined and distinct Joe and Arthur are. Especially enjoyable is how Joe is more than just the love interest to Arthur. From the beginning, we know it’s his dream to open his own shop and that he’ll work as hard as it takes to make it happen. I certainly appreciated that this was established before Arthur and Joe ever meet, so it felt more organic…rather than Arthur offering Joe 20 pounds THEN having Joe suddenly comment about how it would help him with a shop and his family and all that. Timing is critical, and I felt Dee got it bang on for this. This theme of bettering himself to provide for himself and his mom/siblings is revisited at several points throughout the story—but most strongly when the wager is coming to an end. Having had Joe’s family clearly linked to him at the beginning of the book helped me connect to them when they get a bit more on-page mentions/action at the end of the book.
As far as the relationship between Joe and Arthur goes, there is very little beating around the bush. In fact, during our introduction to Arthur—a peer who easily gets bored and struggles to find ways to amuse himself—it’s clear he fancies men. Knowing that, I was primed for him to note Joe’s attractiveness when the two first meet. Likewise, we see Joe subtly flirting with Arthur (to call it flirting is perhaps too much, but for the turn of the 20th century, yeah, I’d call it flirting). Sometimes, it’s just nice to see the two love interests are on the same wavelength from the get go. As quickly as Dee establishes that Joe and Arthur are into one another, however, it’s some time before they actively pursue each another. This helps build a bit of heat and the wait makes the actual boiling-over point that much more enjoyable. I felt their on-page love scenes were satisfyingly descriptive without detracting from the overall themes of the book.
There is also a wide cast of supporting characters, most notably Granville who works to spoil and foil Arthur’s plans. I was surprised at the reasons as to why Granville attempts to sabotage Arthur’s plans and that may be my only real criticism. The explanation for his actions wasn’t very thoroughly developed. I felt there was plenty of time to make more of that, but it all played out rather tamely.
Even though the drama bomb involving Granville fizzled a bit for my tastes, there was plenty of heart ache when the wager actually came to an end. In a way, Joe and Arthur rushing to protect their tender hearts by being dicks to each other—despite having fallen in love with one another—is a touch predictable. That said, the resolution was very sweet. That, too, I felt the story could have benefitted from being a bit more thoroughly attended to (you know, more words on the page)…but maybe that’s just because they broke things off so harshly and then, “five months later” it all gets pleasantly resolved. Personally, I would have liked a bit of a synopsis of what specifically Joe and Arthur were feeling/doing those long months when Arthur was overseas…just to reaffirm they really are still pining for one another.
All in all, though, this was a fabulous historical read. If you like historical romances, if you like the idea of opposites attract, if you like the plot of My Fair Lady/Pygmalion, you’re sure to like this. It’s a quick, satisfying read with characters that feel genuine and offers a bit of social commentary about class divides.