Grace has just been dumped by the latest in a string of good-for-nothing boyfriends, when she meets suave but enigmatic Vaughn, a wealthy art dealer almost twice her age. Not long after their first meeting, Vaughn asks Grace to be his mistress: in exchange for salary and clothing allowance, Grace would accompany Vaughn to social events, host dinners at his house, and, yes, have sex with him. Grace’s initial horror at this suggestion soon deteriorates in the face of her dire financial situation and she decides to give it a go: how hard can it be to have a sugar-daddy?
First things first, I did enjoy this book. The premise is interesting, and I’m familiar with and fond of Manning’s ability to craft slightly petulant heroines with unresolved issues and prickly dialogue with the romantic lead. However, I wish the ending had gone differently. I enjoyed the dialogue, Grace’s interactions with all the other characters, especially her clueless best friend, Lily, her scary boss Kiki and of course the sometimes terrifying, sometimes sexy Vaughn.
I really appreciated Manning pointing out the economic inequality that Grace runs up against – everyone else who works on the fashion magazine with her is or has been bankrolled by their parents or spouse, buying £20 sushi every day for lunch whilst Grace lives off a banana a day, and thinking that Grace wears Primark as some kind of misguided fashion statement rather than from necessity. Added to this is the fact that after leaving University, where Grace is mentioned to have had to buy all her materials for her fashion course, and work part time, Grace went on to take an unpaid internship at the fashion magazine to get her foot in the door, racking up huge debts in the process. Grace isn’t respected by her co-workers partially because she lacks the funds or important connections to fit in, a clear example of how hard it is to make progress in your career if you don’t come from the right background.
However, Manning undermines how reasonable and sympathetic Grace’s enormous debts are (even at the opening of the book her £14k a year salary doesn’t cover her rent), when she has Grace also be prone to mad shopping binges, wherein she buys designer handbags with her credit cards which she then hides at the back of her wardrobe and doesn’t even use in a fit of shame. This is frankly ridiculous – even you accept the mad shopping as an appropriate flaw for someone who is fashion-obsessed and bad at dealing with her feelings, she should at least have the common sense to just RETURN the unused items after the shame kicks in. Ignoring the calls and letters from her debtors was more sympathetic; she clearly didn’t understand her finances and was experiencing serious deer-in-headlights at the prospect of her debts, which again wasn’t sensible but was at least understandable.
I thought Grace and Vaughn’s relationship had the potential to be thought-provoking. I hoped that Grace would make progress in her career after taking increased assertiveness and self confidence from the relationship, which she does, but her promotion is also crucially reliant on the contacts she has made through Vaughn, and the influx of money helping her fit in. This is, I suppose, realistic, but also quite sad.
I initially expected Grace’s ‘arrangement’ with Vaughn to blow up in her face (which it kind of did) and then for her to either sort herself out and start being a fabulous single female with a fresh perspective, or for her to meet a more appropriate guy. I didn’t hate the ending, wherein Grace and Vaughn break up because Vaughn panics that she is getting emotionally attached and then get back together because Grace presents Vaughn with a pre-nup, thus allowing them to have a ‘normal’ relationship that still involves a contract. But honestly, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. There is brooding and troubled hero, and then there is man-who-injects-you-with-adrenaline-and-shouts-at-you-when-you’re-sick. Grace may have felt that they were both broken people in such a way that they fit together, but it would have been nicer if she’d felt healed, and moved on. Or at least if it didn’t feel like she was adapting herself to Vaughn’s oddities more than he was willing to adapt to hers.