In literature and pop culture, we often see women getting makeovers to meet standards for beauty and social status (think Cinderella, or Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries). In Eva Leigh’s My Fake Rake, however, it’s the quiet non-alpha hero who blossoms into a rake and sweeps the heroine off her feet.
Sebastian Holloway is an anthropologist who can recite facts at the drop of a hat, but suffers from social anxiety. He has a secret crush on his scientist friend Lady Grace Wyatt — but feels he has nothing to offer a woman of her status. “Your world isn’t my world. Never has been,” he tells her at one point.
Whether or not that’s true isn’t the takeaway here, though. From the get-go, Leigh identifies the imbalance of power between Sebastian and Grace — tipped in Grace’s favor — and it’s gratifying to read about a heroine in a historical romance who wields some power over the hero.
For one, Grace has wealth and social status. Even when she struggles to get the attention of a fellow scientist, Mason, and recruits Sebastian to make him jealous, it’s evident who wears the breeches in this friendship. Step one in turning Sebastian into a polished society rake? Teaming up with his friend the Duke of Rotherby to give him a makeover and etiquette lessons.
Grace convinces Sebastian to see the whole process as an anthropological study on how the upper crust lives. But of course, real feelings start to get in the way, for both of them. It’s safe to say that Sebastian is pretty perfect for Grace; they’ve formed a kinship based on their shared academic fascinations and sense of displacement from London society. As expected in friends-to-lovers and fake relationship plots, they keep their feelings to themselves out of fear of rejection, to the extent that they pretend a steamy kiss was just that — pretending. As a result, their romance (or lack thereof) stays on a low simmer throughout the book — understandably so, as Grace is still attracted to Mason, at least until her feelings for Sebastian can’t be denied anymore.
Now, the makeover romance can be controversial at times; everyone wants to be loved for who they are. But Leigh uses the trope to critique societal pressure — and ultimately transforms it into a positive experience for her characters.
Rotherby and Grace’s pedagogical approaches to grooming Sebastian speak volumes about how superficial their surroundings can be. “We’re trying to impress London Society, and it doesn’t care whether or not you feel any sense of personal fulfillment. It merely wants to know if you’ve got a carriage and a country estate,” Rotherby scolds Sebastian when he resists the makeover.
The same quote applies to Grace in many ways, as she’s forced to put herself on the marriage mart and meet social standards of femininity in order to be accepted. And still, her illustrious scientific career gets squashed under familial (and societal) pressure to settle down. “A burr of anger flared within her, that a woman could not exist in this world on her own,” Grace laments after her father guilt-trips her into finding a suitor, thereby setting her fauxmance with Sebastian in motion. “She would always be subject to a man’s munificence, always be less than because she’d been born a female.”
While Leigh makes it clear how absurd those drastic plans for the fake relationship and makeover are, she also uses them to bolster Grace and Sebastian’s self-confidence. For Grace, the fauxmance-at-first makes her feel wanted and more secure in herself, and for Sebastian, it helps him overcome his anxiety.
They may have started this journey as fish out of water, but by its end, Grace and Sebastian learn to be more amphibious — joke intended. My Fake Rake is a feast of female empowerment, positive friendships, feel-good moments, and social satire. And as the first book in a series, it builds a delicious world you’ll want to come back to — hopefully because the delightful supporting characters will get their own stories next.
Kamrun Nesa is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Bustle, PopSugar, and HelloGiggles.