Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-283880-3
Historical Romance, 2018
Oh, if only I get a dollar for every Avon historical romance that features a duke – I’d be drowning in riches by now. Yes, Duchess by Design is another one such romance, and worse, it has a dressmaker heroine jumping up the social rung without any push back other than her being too independent and twenty-first century to be a mere duchess… at least until he tells her that he loves her and that’s alright then. It’s set in the Gilded Age, so it’s like, totally a time for women to be independent and have premarital sex (in the name of love, of course – everything else makes you a ho)… party on, people.
Brandon Fiennes, the Duke of Kingston, is broke thanks to his late daddy who clearly didn’t believe in saving up for a rainy day. Therefore, his less intelligent friend, the Bertie if this a Loretta Chase book (and of course it isn’t, and I have no idea why people would think it is), has to slowly persuade Kingston to give up the idea of marrying for love. Brandon goes through his list of baggage. His sisters want to marry for love, so there’s no help from those parasites, plus he needs to set aside money for their dowries (true love only happens with wealthy men, after all), while her mother is living in la-la land and is unable to cope with the reality of their finances. So, as the Bertie suggests, he has to go to America to wed one of the heiresses there.
Naturally he just has to be attracted to one of the first women he bumps into over there – Adeline Black, aspiring fashionable dressmaker. Despite his best intentions, he keeps seeking her company out, and she obliges by lecturing him about the concepts of female independence, how women are victims of fashion oppression because they are treated like things to be seen not heard (the fact that Adeline intends to capitalize on this form of oppression is conveniently glossed over), blah blah blah. And then he decides to marry Adeline anyway, and things become even more stupid as Adeline begins to reject his help after she gets fired, and the two of them embark on a tedious, very familiar song and dance. Because, as I’ve mentioned, when you marry up, the only issue that stands in your way in the Gilded Age is your own determination to pay lip service to feminism before indulging in a life of comfort and wealth anyway. This one is so woke like that.
Here’s the thing. While Duchess by Design is filled to the brim with rampant stupidity, it is also brimming with an innate charm that shows underneath all the misguided execution. The author has a nice sense of humor, but in this one, she panders heavily to readers who like their stories full of superficial elements of woke nonsense.
Indeed, this superficial nature makes the whole story feels so disingenuous – all the woke people here are so hot that their hotness actually gives them an innate advantage in seeking out relationships that actually benefit them, economically and socially in Miss Independent’s case. Seriously, all the good guys here are hot, hot, hot, and not only that, the moment Kingston and Adeline stumble financially, these hot, hot people also conveniently turn out to be wealthy, well socially connected, or both and therefore, these people give our hero and heroine the financial leg to stand on. Both the woke heroine and the hero (after he has been purged of his toxic masculinity) never have to actually work to validate their twenty-first century “upper class kids sprouting socialist nonsense they have little actual knowledge of” talking points. At the end of the day, the entire story is all talk, hence the disingenuous nature of the whole thing.
Hilariously enough, this approach is not working. I’ve seen the very readers this book is aimed at – these readers love to drop phrases like “white privilege”, “toxic masculinity”, “rape culture”, etc when they are not stupidly imposing twenty-first century social justice cow values on stories set in the 19th century – lash out at the hero for being an example of toxic masculinity because he dares to show up in this story without coming equipped with social justice cow talking points.
At any rate, Duchess by Design is a failure because the author tries to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to pander to the woke crowd, but she also wants to pander to readers who read romance, and hence, this one ends up being an insincere, bewildering shambling thing that fools nobody from either crowd it is trying to appeal to. If the author wants to continue pandering to the woke crowd, she shouldn’t be writing historical romance; she should be writing young adult, as that genre is where these social justice cow-types live and breathe. Even then, she has better do it quick. Those woke young adult readers are getting on with the years, and the next generation of readers seem to be turning out to be far more conservative, so the current woke trend may swing to the other end of the spectrum before we know it.