If you’re looking for a sweet, nostalgic Regency romance—all stately ballrooms, gallant suitors and sparkling repartee over tea with tiny sandwiches—keep looking. There’s nothing prim or proper about Lex Croucher’s dazzling debut novel, Reputation, which is so boldly, audaciously modern in its portrayal of 19th-century mean-girl culture that I kept waiting for someone to inform the heroine that on Wednesdays, they wear pink.
Georgiana Ellers is eager to find a society as exciting and glamorous as her favorite books, but her expectations are low. With neither money nor connections, her social opportunities are limited to what her aunt and uncle can provide, and their idea of excitement differs dramatically from hers. She is suffering through a dreadful party with bad lighting, worse punch and dismal company when in steps Frances Campbell. From that moment, nothing is ever dull again.
Frances is so sparkling, so vibrant and lively and witty and daring, that readers will be forgiven for thinking that she’s Georgiana’s love interest. Certainly, Georgiana is instantly smitten. Croucher understands the fierce, passionate crushes girls have on their friends—the yearning to be in another person’s orbit, to have them think of you as clever and charming. Romantic attachment makes the heart beat faster, but friendships burrow deeper under the skin; you feel them all the way to your bones. And that’s ordinary friendship. Frances is anything but ordinary. In addition to the giddy pleasure of her company, she exposes Georgiana to a world of fantastic wealth, endless indulgence and absolute debauchery. It’s fun, it’s dizzying, it’s literally intoxicating—and it’s very, very dangerous.
There’s bigotry—heaps of it, ranging from racism to chauvinism to classism to homophobia. There’s relentless mockery of any easy target, even within the “in” group. There’s peer pressure, slut-shaming and marriages so toxic that you wonder how they ever managed to reproduce. There’s an intense attempted rape depicted on the page and the heartbreaking aftermath of another assault. But for all that, Reputation is far from a dark story. While the book doesn’t shy away from the messier aspects of high-society life, it’s also filled with humor and charm, often via Georgiana, who is a refreshingly funny and frank protagonist. Her relationships are deep and complex, beautifully developed and sometimes shockingly sweet. And while a large portion of the story focuses on Georgiana’s feelings for her newfound friends, Croucher also weaves in a romance that provides a lovely contrast. Where Frances and her friends are wild, Thomas Hawksley is calm. Where they are spontaneous, he is deliberate. And where they bring out the worst in Georgiana, he brings out the best.
Reputation is not always an easy read, but it’s a vivid and fascinating one. And it’s definitely not quaint.