Book Review: Reputation by Lex Croucher

Title: Reputation
Author: Lex Croucher
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 5, 2022
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The hilarious debut novel from Lex Croucher. A classic romcom with a Regency-era twist, for fans of Mean Girls and/or Jane Austen.

Abandoned by her parents, middle-class Georgiana Ellers has moved to a new town to live with her dreary aunt and uncle. At a particularly dull party, she meets the enigmatic Frances Campbell, a wealthy member of the in-crowd who lives a life Georgiana couldn’t have imagined in her wildest dreams.

Lonely and vulnerable, Georgiana falls in with Frances and her unfathomably rich, deeply improper friends. Georgiana is introduced to a new world: drunken debauchery, mysterious young men with strangely arresting hands, and the upper echelons of Regency society.

But the price of entry to high society might just be higher than Georgiana is willing to pay …

Sex, drugs, and… Regency?

It all began at a party, as almost everything of interest does.

In this historical romance, 20-year-old Georgiana longs for some excitement in her life, but gets more than she bargained for. Sent off to stay with her nice but boring aunt and uncle after her parents decide to basically ditch her for some seaside living, she’s just bursting for fun and interesting conversation. At a weird and disappointing party, she encounters rich girl Frances Campbell, who plies her with drinks and entices her to invade the hostess’s closet… and that’s mild for Frances.

She was certainly no swashbuckling adventurer or windswept nobleman, but Georgiana knew at once that she was in the presence of a Main Character.

Frances takes a shine to the new girl, and begins inviting Georgiana to her own crowd’s parties — filled with the young adults of the upper class, who seem to take every opportunity to drink to excess and engage in every sort of debauched behavior they can imagine. What’s in that pipe they’re passing around? Georgiana doesn’t know, but it does make her feel silly and floaty, and leads to a bizarre interaction with the man she’s crushing on.

As the novel progresses, the pressure to keep up with Frances’s behavior and to fit in with her friends leads Georgiana to lie to her aunt and uncle, repeatedly sneak out of the house for unchaperoned and inappropriate outings and parties, and to be rude to someone who actually might make a true and positive friend.

She seemed to have forgiven Georgiana for whatever wrongdoings she had previously attributed to her at the picnic; Georgiana wondered if she was very kind or if she simply had an extraordinarily short memory, like an octogenarian or a goldfish.

While mostly silly, there are some heavier plot points, including a man of Frances’s circle who in reality is a sexual predator, although no one seems willing to call him on it. Meanwhile, Frances seems to become more desperate and out of control as her love interest turns out to be much less than honorable, and Georgiana’s tenuous position with the in-crowd becomes harder and harder to hold on to.

Reputation is billed as a mix of Austen and Mean Girls, and I see the Mean Girls comparison much more so than the Austen! As in Mean Girls, an outsider is drawn to the popular crowd and does what she needs to do in order to fit in and be accepted, despite the fact that these people really are pretty awful.

While Reputation is set in the Regency era, the behavior of the characters bears very little relation to anything we might read in a Jane Austen novel. Yes, there are balls and parties, but the behavior! I don’t pretend to be an expert by any means, but I’ve never read another novel that depicts the behavior of the upper crust as so debauched — non-stop alcohol, outrageous pranks and games, the mysterious pipe contents mentioned above, drugs in people’s drinks (which I suppose must have been laudanum, although it’s not specified).

Georgiana was beginning to suspect that this game was designed solely to give everybody involved a socially acceptable excuse to feel one another up.

Sticking with this book was challenging for the first 25% or so. The Mean Girls behavior cannot be overemphasized, Georgiana makes some very poor choices, and the writing, while mostly on the clever and witty side, also includes some clunkier and/or modern phrasing that’s jarring in this setting.

In fact, ignore the shifts and waistcoats and reticules, and many of the party scenes could be plunked down into a frat house party with little to no difference. It was difficult to reconcile the supposed theme of reputations being all with the blatantly disreputable behavior that the characters seem to all indulge in. In fact, the reputation aspect aspect only seems to be addressed head-on on rare occasions, including a scene in which an upper class girl explains some basics to Georgiana:

“I don’t say this to do you harm. I am simply laying out the facts. You would not be unhappy, I think, with an ordinary life befitting your station. Here — now — you have truly stumbled into the lion’s den. The potential for unhappiness here is vast. Nobody here will be shamed or cast out for the many sins I’m sure they’ll commit before Monday. There is almost nothing we can do that will not be excused because of our wealth, our standing. Our parentage. Can you say the same?”

This being a romance, of course there’s a happy ending, but not without drama, fights, and scandal before getting there. As the end approached, I found myself cheering for Georgiana, especially as she starts making better choices, including showing appreciation for the people in her life who truly care for her and taking a stand when it’s most needed.

Reputation, all in all, is a fun book. As I said, I’m no expert and have no idea if the wealthy of the period really did indulge in such extremely decadent behavior behind closed doors, rather than sticking with the polite balls and card parties of Jane Austen novels. For me, since almost everything I know about the era comes from Austen and the Bridgerton books (not a well-rounded historical education!), the behavior of the characters in Reputation was downright shocking.

Still, I did find myself caught up in the story by the conclusion and quite entertained. So, take the historical representation with grains of salt as needed, don’t accept drinks that have passed through Frances’s hands, and enjoy Reputation for the sheer silly romp of it all.

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