Story Rating: 4.75 stars
Audio Rating: 4.75 stars
Narrator: Cornell Collins
Length: 8 hours, 1 minutes
Robin and Marianne Loxleigh (from Nottinghamshire, naturally) know better than most the importance of security and how nigh on impossible it is to achieve outside the sparkling, upper-class ton (aka the 10,000), and if you aren’t born into it, you have to marry into it. Having grown up poor and exploited by those from “polite society,” Robin and Marianne have made marrying into money the goal of the season. As charming, mannered, and “pretty as a picture” as the siblings are, they are quickly embraced as equals and welcomed to the marriage market by all…except for the cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and judgmental Sir John (Hart) Hartlebury. Hart “[mistrusts] beautiful people as a general rule”, and when he glimpses the calculation behind Robin’s smile, he’s determined to keep Robin away from his plain, young niece, Alice.
When Hart’s machinations place Robin at an extreme disadvantage, he goes to Hart to appeal for mercy in order to protect Marianne and her marriage prospects. Certain he’s found the leverage to hoist Robin out of Alice’s life for good, Hart is content to hear Robin out, as he’ll never have to deal the with too charming and too handsome rogue again. Instead, they reach an agreement that softens their prejudices and allows them to see the men behind the protective social masks. Unfortunately, Hart and Robin are products of their birth and station, and the prejudices and pride each man holds continually color their perceptions and create obstacles. Unless they learn to trust each other and see past Robin’s history as a man “who lied, [cheated and] sold himself for debts” and Hart’s position in society, they may lose their only chance for something real.
K.J. Charles is one of my favorite historical authors, and The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting wonderfully showcases her deft hand at wordplay, satire, and the comedy of manners style. Marianne and Robin are bursting with personality and wit; I mean, how could you not love people with the moxie to choose their names from well-known folklore and baldly gamble on the fact that the rules of decorum the ton live by will keep people from digging to avoid being impolite, or worse, looking like they don’t know something. The running joke of ‘that sounds familiar’ is delightful. Most of the other main players are equally vivid, and all rebels in their own ways. Everyone is full of polite (and not so polite) snark and determination—they’d all get along swimmingly if these determined souls weren’t at cross-purposes.
Hart has an almost instant and pathological dislike of Robin, and despite Robin’s best efforts, he cannot win Hart over. The more time Robin spends with Alice (who he actually quite likes), the more aggressively Hart tries to run Robin off (even if it means ruining the man), especially once Hart admits to himself that he’s desperately attracted to Robin, and it would be torture having him so close. Although Robin thinks Hart is an insufferable prick, his attraction to Hart’s “scowling temper and physical power” is established early, but Hart’s antipathy is so thick, I could not see how these two would get together. However, the way they do is unexpected, fitting, and deliciously salacious. Even better, it gives Robin free reign to be his irreverent, spirited self and expose’s the lonely caretaker under Hart’s gruffness.
Hart and Robin are amazing together, and are more alike than their stations would suggest. Both believe they are unworthy of love and happiness, are fiercely loyal to their loved ones, and feel the only value they possess is from caring for them. How they share hidden parts of themselves and find comfort, unquestioning support, and love with each other is lovely. Robin finds an unexpected enjoyment and freedom in being (mostly) honest for a change and loves teasing Hart out of his shell and teaching him to play. For Hart, having a lover who finds him attractive and worthy is a novel and humbling experience, and all he wants to do is be Robin’s White Knight.
Besides Sir John and Robin’s unconventional journey to love, there is much to enjoy in Gentle Art. While Charles’s books generally offer quiet, shrewd reflections on societal/ governmental shortcomings and hypocrisy, usually through humor, this story is more upfront. From Edwina, Hart’s sister, cuttingly schooling Hart on the realities of marriage for women to Alice’s desire to choose her own path, Gentle Art doesn’t pull its punches. I also really enjoyed Marianne and Robin’s relationship. From their introduction, it’s obvious the sibling are extremely close, funny and smart enough to pull off a lucrative long con. However, for all their mercenary ways, the two have big hearts they’ve learned to shield, and their conversations when alone are hilarious and sometimes sadly tragic as well. On the surface, they’re marring to elevate their station and to get one over on the 10,000. In reality, they’re also attempting to prove their worth to themselves. Both expected their contempt for the nobility and gentry to make the hunt easy and never thought their hearts would be vulnerable. Robin and Marianne go from being carefree grifters to at odds and miserable, and many later scenes are fraught with emotion and tension—conveyed excellently by Cornell Collins.
Collins gives one of his narrative best performances in Gentle Art. Hart’s voice is absolutely pitch perfect, and Collins does one of the best jobs of conveying a character’s personality in their vocals that I’ve heard in a while. Many times, gruff characters’ voices soften into almost different versions after falling in love. Yet Collins manages to maintain Hart’s irascible edge even in companionable conversation. It’s also nice to hear the gravel mentioned in the text actually conveyed in the character’s voice. Collins’s portrayal of Robin is also great; there’s a subtle stiffness and quiet in Proper Robin’s voice, whereas Rogue Robin’s voice is lighter, droll, and more real, and Collins’s voices for the most snobbish among the 10,000 are hilarious. Collins is one of my favorites for narrating high society, as his pacing, comedic timing, and line delivery are topnotch, and The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting definitely required all the nuance and skill at his disposal.
I highly recommend the audiobook of this funny, smart, romantic comedy featuring gold diggers with hearts of gold, a guardian grump, and a secret heiress (who’s also a secret genius) brought to vibrant life by Cornell Collins.