Imagine what Fight Club would be like if Edward Norton and Brad Pitt had been women. Imagine your favorite Jane Austen story, but told as though she were the raunchiest broad in all the land and didn't have her infamous fixation on marriage. Now imagine the two together and you've got The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman.
From the synopsis on Goodreads, which doesn't do this engrossing novel justice:
Moving from a filthy brothel to a fine manor house, from the world of street fighters to the world of champions, The Fair Fight is a vivid, propulsive historical novel announcing the arrival of a dynamic new talent.
Born in a brothel, Ruth doesn’t expect much for herself beyond abuse. While her sister’s beauty affords a certain degree of comfort, Ruth’s harsh looks set her on a path of drudgery. That is until she meets pugilist patron George Dryer and discovers her true calling—fighting bare knuckles in the prize rings of Bristol.
Manor-born Charlotte has a different cross to bear. Scarred by smallpox, stifled by her social and romantic options, and trapped in twisted power games with her wastrel brother, she is desperate for an escape.
After a disastrous, life-changing fight sidelines Ruth, the two women meet, and it alters the perspectives of both of them. When Charlotte presents Ruth with an extraordinary proposition, Ruth pushes dainty Charlotte to enter the ring herself and learn the power of her own strength.
A gripping, page-turning story about people struggling to transcend the circumstances into which they were born and fighting for their own places in society, The Fair Fight is a raucous, intoxicating tale of courage, reinvention, and fighting one’s way to the top.
I fell asleep reading The Fair Fight more nights than I can count. Even as I'm nearing the end of the spring semester in grad school and I'm exhausted from studying late into the night, I'd force my eyes to stay open a little longer to take in more of the story.
Between the 18th century insults that you can't help giggling over, the audacity and cruelty of many of the male characters, Ruth's fearlessness, and Charlotte's awakening to independence, The Fair Fight isn't just about women prize fighters. It's about taking control of the life that is yours, rising above the life you were born into, sacrificing for your spouse's success, and not letting anyone keep you from doing what you love.
Despite her hard living ways and foul mouth, or perhaps because of them, you can't help but love Ruth. The reader meets her when she's just 10 years old, by which point she's already accepted her destiny to work in the brothel her mother owns and just wants to get right down to it so she can start making money for herself. She accepts this despite her less-than-desirable looks, of which her beautiful sister, Dora, doesn't miss an opportunity to remind her. Yet Ruth defies any stereotypes placed upon her: she leaves the hooking to Dora and instead uses her unimpressive looks to her advantage by fighting against men and women of all shapes and sizes in the local tavern's boxing ring.
While the reader instantly loves Ruth, love for Charlotte is harder won. At the time you meet her, she's lonesome, piteous, and too quiet to have much personality. But over the course of the novel, she learns her husband isn't all he seems to be and she becomes enthralled by Ruth, who is so unlike any woman she's ever known, and the two forge a friendship where Charlotte learns much more than how to box. With each blow she sees a possibility for the way her life could be.
Yet even as independent and fearless as Ruth is, that doesn't preclude her from supporting her husband, even as he's thrown into the boxing ring and is more successful than her after only a few weeks of training due to his being male and of an abnormally large stature. Even as Ruth is rendered unable to fight, forced to give up the one thing she loves to do and her only means of supporting herself; left to stand by and watch her husband reach greater success in a few months than she did in a decade, she stands by his side and gives him unwavering support, just as he did for her before his boxing career began.
The pain of watching her husband, by circumstance alone and in such a short time, eclipse her lifelong accomplishments is translated so well that the reader can't help feel an aching, sinking feeling in the stomach just reading about it. Without even realizing it, you're gripped by the story and drawn into it emotionally and physically.
Although some women--some people--would never dream of voluntarily allowing themselves to be beaten up or beat another, The Fair Fight shows how prize fighting can be baptismal. It saves Ruth and Charlotte from many things: a life of selling one's body, a life dependent upon the charity of others, a life with one's husband's fingers around one's throat.
If you're looking for an un-put-down-able historical fiction novel that features strong women, foul language, and raucous adventures, The Fair Fight is not to be missed.