by Julia Quinn, historical (2008)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-087610-4
Julia Quinn's books tend to be inconsistent. They are either fun and frothy or serious with a bit of frothy, and often, the balance between emotional impact and humor can be off. Ms Quinn tried to give her more recent efforts a bit more punch in the angst department, but the angst often come off as superficial or even artificial.
Until The Lost Duke Of Wyndham, that is. This one is a notable book because the author pulls off that delicate balance between humor and angst almost perfectly. Reading this one is a revelation and, of course, an entertaining experience.
Okay, the plot is a bit on the "Honey, you may not believe me, but trust me, it really happened!" side, but hey, nothing's perfect. Here goes. Our heroine Grace Eversleigh is the companion of the cantankerous, snobby, and demanding Dowager Duchess of Wyndham. Fortunately, the rest of her employer's clan are more democratic in their affections for the hired help - Grace is BFF with Amelia, the betrothed of Thomas, the heir to the title, and Thomas treats Grace with far more affection that he shows his fiancée.
One evening, Grace and the Dowager are coming home from a ball when they are robbed by a highwayman, whom the Dowager realizes is a dead ringer for her late son. Jack Audley, the fellow, has no idea that his father was so jacked up in Society, and he's not sure whether he wants to switch vocation from indolent highwayman giving a share of his profits to the poor to the future Duke of Wyndham.
The Dowager has him kidnapped to her home, however, and insists that he have fun with his new life. There are perks, of course, such as the charming Ms Eversleigh, but Jack's ascension to the lofty heights of Society also means that Thomas, the previous heir, will be displaced. Where will Grace's loyalty lie?
Now, when I say that the angst is very nicely balanced with the humor, I am not referring to Jack. Jack is a standard hero with some superficial and often artificial baggage. I have a hard time warming up to him as well, because he constantly presses his attention on Grace even when it's obvious that his grandmother disapproves. He's not a sheltered man, he should know that in such a situation, Grace will be the one who will get the sack with her reputation completely ruined. Given that Grace doesn't have anywhere else to go should she lose her position, Jack is placing her in a difficult situation, especially as there is a clear power imbalance here. As a hired help, it's not like she can take action against the future Duke of Wyndham, after all. Jack's persistent pursuit of Grace, without any intention of making the relationship serious, therefore, may seem charming under other circumstances, but here it is a pretty disquieting thing to follow.
But once he decides that he's in love with Grace, Jack can be a charming fellow, even being protective of Grace and defending her from his grandmother. I like that he doesn't take any nonsense from anyone, and he also doesn't like it if someone piles on the nonsense on Grace.
It's just that Jack's "issues" can be on the eye-rolling side. First, he doesn't like the trappings of being a Duke, and this goes on for a while. Just when he seems to have found a ladder to get over that matter, the author pulls some family drama out of Jack's rear end so that Jack can prolong the story a bit longer by declaring that he needs to resolve matters with the family on his mother's side before he can have his happily ever after with Grace. Many things about Jack - his issues, his personality - seem tacked-on solely to facilitate certain plot developments.
But the heroine, Grace, is easily one of the author's more realistic and likable heroines. On paper, she seems like another sweet and selfless girl, but as the story goes on, Grace becomes a more complex character with realistic strengths and flaws. She isn't a martyr - she is a good companion to the Dowager, but that doesn't mean she never wished to strangle that woman occasionally - and she also has her share of realistic wishes and wants. She's not the stereotypical selfless doormat - she seems like an actual human being, and her relationship with the Dowager is actually quite fascinating. In fact, I feel that the best scene in this book is the one between her and the Dowager late in the story, when the power balance eventually shifts and the Dowager's steely exterior cracks as she admits that she needs Grace more than they both realized. Grace also has a great rapport with Amelia and Thomas, and I like that. Let's face it, it's not every day I come across a heroine in a romance novel that forms healthy relationships with other people that are not brought about by her own relationship with the hero.
Therefore, when I say that there is a nice balance between angst and humor here, I'm referring to Grace and her relationships with other secondary characters in this story. Jack, once he stops being a creepy stalker abusing his position to get into Grace's bloomers, has some very sweet moments with Grace, but I can't see him as a well-rounded character. A walking plot device, more like. Grace is definitely the better-drawn character here.
All things considered, The Lost Duke Of Wyndham is a pretty solid read, with some pleasant revelation about the good things the author can do on a good day.
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