March 6, 2010
The Highest Stakes by Emery Lee
Set in mid-eighteenth century England, the Highest Stakes is a love story. Or, to be more precise, a story of love constantly foiled and frustrated. At its core is Charlotte Wallace, an orphan taken in by unscrupulous relatives, and Robert Devington, a young groom in her uncle’s employ. From the start, Robert tries to win Charlotte’s uncle’s approval to wed her, but the older man’s social ambitions will not countenance such a union. Later enlisted in the King’s Army, Robert befriends cavalry officer Major Phillip Drake. A self-confessed scoundrel, Drake’s more altruistic side comes dangerously close to surfacing time and again, until he is forced to choose between his friendship with Robert Devington and his own selfish objectives.
There is much ado about horses. Charlotte and Robert’s love blossoms as he teaches her about riding, and only their passion for each other eclipses their mutual love of all things equine. But realizing their dreams of romance seems ever beyond their reach. With each twist and turn of fate and the machinations of wily antagonists, Emery Lee ratchets up the suspense: will Charlotte and Robert end up together? Will Major Drake fade away in his chosen life of dissipation or step up to ancestral duties? The beauty of the book is that you cannot anticipate how it will go; you can only hang on for the ride.
England at this time was obsessed with horseracing, a sport set apart for nobility. And class consciousness abounds, from Charlotte’s relations who are eager to sacrifice her happiness to elevate their social standing, to Drake’s father, who demands his son marry for monetary gain to restore a crumbling earldom. The hypocrisy and artifice of class creates a sort of reign of terror over its subjects, and the social fabric is rife with people operating out of bad motives, from misguided honor to outright villainy. Even Robert Devington, a man of low birth but high honor, reveals layers of pettiness as the story progresses, while Drake, who starts off a bounder, becomes a more sympathetic figure.
The Highest Stakes is a rich and rewarding read, with the history of the times neatly sewn in. The real meat of the book, though, is its relationships: not only between Charlotte and Robert, but between Robert and Phillip Drake, and a handful of lesser players. Emery Lee lays it out cleverly, sometimes humorously, with period sensibility and restrained sensuality. She does the details well, from the meticulous to the sumptuous. I read the last quarter of the book in a single sitting, and would have wished for yet a little more such detail in the book’s closing to tie up loose ends. Even so, it is a remarkable journey which, like most journeys, is less about the destination than how you get there.