Book of the Week: The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shupe

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Some authors can effortlessly construct a historical era rich in detail and color and ideas. As a reader, you find yourself at one with the drama unfolding in this world, following along the characters’ motivations and actions as if you were an active participant in the story. This is exactly what happened for me with The Prince of Broadway. Shupe sets her story in NYC during the Gilded Age, and you cannot possibly conceive of the story happening in any other milieu.

Clayton “Clay” Madden grew up a criminal and believes that has stained his soul black. Now he skates criminality with his illegal gambling houses of high and low repute. He is proud of his exclusive Bronze House where the elites come to gamble — the culmination of all his scraping and scrapping. A brilliant businessman, he has amassed a fortune from nothing through ruthless decisions, cutthroat choices and hefty bribes to police and politicians alike. After a couple of bad experiences, for years now, he has eschewed female relationships, other a few casual connections out of necessity, and even those have been few and far in between.

So imagine the shock to his system when a beautiful Uptown debutante of great wealth and privilege flouts his rules to enter his club (for men only) and proceeds to beguile and win every night she shows up. Asking her up to his office to uncover her mystery is irresistible.

Florence Greene lives her life boldly, outside the lines of what society considered normal female behavior. She is not interested in tea parties, sewing circles and gossiping at-homes. She is convinced that she is a modern woman who wants to be in charge of her own destiny and not under the thumb of a demanding husband. She wants to live by her own rules and never made to feel like she isn’t good enough again. To secure her independence, her plan is to run her own casino for Uptown women (no men allowed). She has been blatantly visiting the Bronze House in order to draw Clay’s attention and then proposition him to teach her how to operate a casino. Best to learn from the best in order to be successful.

Clay has nursed a secret agenda since his boyhood — to destroy the family home of Duncan Greene like he destroyed his twenty years ago, resulting in the death of his younger brother, desertion by his father, and reduction of his life to living in squalor with the rest of his family. that Duncan Greene is Florence’s beloved father does not give him pause — his thirst for revenge is all-consuming. At the outset, he decides to be very transparent and tells Florence that he plans revenge on her father without revealing how or why and that he is very attracted to her — he hopes that these revelations will cause her to flee and leave him alone. Unfortunately for his equanimity, she doesn’t intimidate easily, nor is she easily thwarted when she has a goal in mind.

Gambling is a way of life – much more than a business. It requires hardheadedness and the strength and confidence to make uncomfortable and illegal decisions. Knowing this, Clay tries a few times to dissuade Florence from her chosen path of the casino, which would irrevocably destroy her place in her society and her image of herself. He does not want life to tarnish all the joy and light in her. However, she is not only adamant but resentful of his highhandedness in attempting to manage her. He, wisely, decides to keep his apprehension in check and let her make her own decisions. He also recognizes in her the craving for danger and freedom — far be it for him to ever stifle that in someone.   

Florence and Clay are drawn together because of the courage and intelligence they see in each other. They also openly admit that they are selfish in how they achieve their goals. I liked that not only do they recognize this in themselves, but they do so in each other, and instead of finding it repulsive, they admire the singlemindedness of their characters. What Clay likes best is her honesty of purpose that shows through her dealings with everyone, especially him. She is best pleased that he is kind to her and doesn’t treat her like a silly girl with a wind tunnel between her ears as most of her Uptown peers do. Clay and Florence listen to each other, take each other seriously and respect their choices.

From such disparate people, Shupe has built an enduring romantic relationship set in the Gilded Age in NYC. The relationship is iconic of the culture and societal mores of the time and is as much a commentary of the society as it is about the two individuals involved.

This was my first Shupe novel, and I can’t believe I haven’t read this author before. Luckily, she has the third book in the Uptown Girls series, The Devil of Downtown, coming out in June.

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