Sourcebooks Casablanca, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-8599-8
Historical Romance, 2014
Must Love Dukes, which seems to be Elizabeth Michels’s debut published effort, is a great example of how an author can destroy her characters’ initial charm and chemistry by having them behave like ghastly, nonsensical clowns for way too long. All the way to nearly the last page, in fact. You will need a considerable amount of suspension of disbelief to enjoy this story, and even then, it’s a coin toss as to whether you’d see the hero as a bully or someone who has the right to do what he does.
Lillian Phillips and Devon Grey, the Duke of Thornwood, have an unusual history. A year ago, she was trying to buy back everything his gambler brother had pawned off, and Devon happened to buy her father’s pocket watch shortly before Lily dropped by the pawn shop. She trailed after him, hiding behind a lamp post when he turned, and he was kind to pretend that he couldn’t see her huge skirts sticking out from behind the lamp post. He ambushed her in an inn downtown, they had dinner, and ended up in bed. She fled with the pocket watch the morning after.
This chapter, while with its share of dumb moments – Lily hiding behind a lamp post, good god, is actually a very charming scene. The two characters discover a connection that feels real, credible, and when they end up in bed, the whole thing seems like a most natural thing to do. I really like these two in this early chapter, and, for the rest of the book, I find myself desperately trying to remember that guy who has seen the world only to feel alienated and alone in his own world, and that woman who wants to see the world but can only dream of doing so. I suspect that the reason I manage to finish this book is because of those memories, and my hope that, somehow, these two characters would make another appearance later in the book.
A year later, Lily is shocked to learn that if you let your useless brothers keep wasting everyone’s time and money, they never change. Despite the fact that her father always treats her like a disappointment because she isn’t married at her age, she desperately tries to keep him happy. Well, the joke’s on her. He dies after telling her what a waste of everyone’s time she is, and her brothers plot to marry her off so that she won’t be their burden anymore. Lily can’t do much, so she decides to go along to stay at her less unpleasant brother’s place in London while putting on a sad face all the while.
Devon recognizes her, so he blackmails her into doing all kinds of things – things that he doesn’t care would ruin her reputation or anything, because she stole from him a watch that he could afford to replace, so SHE MUST PAY, PAY, PAY. This is basically the plot of the story. Everything becomes more and more farcical as Lily and Devon begin to act more outlandishly around one another. It is very late in the story when Devon wonders whether he should have quit while he was ahead, and I can only wish that I can tell him yes, even as I beat him bloody with a baseball bat.
Here’s the thing: I don’t care whether Devon is right or wrong to make Lily jump through hoops as if she is a dog he is training for a sideshow. I don’t care whether the heroine asked for this treatment because, for some reason, she could never say anything right when she has to. I just know that their behavior becomes increasingly juvenile as I turn the page, and I find myself wishing for the two people in the first chapter to show up again. The whole pointless farce feel of the story is worsened by the presence of Lily’s one-dimensionally evil brother and both our main characters’ determination to martyr themselves and resign their love as lost at the first opportunity – out of character indeed for two people who claim to want to live outside the rules, snort.
Oh, and Devon is a hypocrite. He claims that he hates his lot, people in polite Society are vapid, shallow, and mean… and here he is, forcing a hapless woman to do increasingly degrading things out of a petty need to show her who the boss is. So who’s the vapid one now, huh? He also claims to empathize with the working class, et cetera… just because he goes downtown to the pub and drink among them, before going home to his big house to be catered to by his butler and other house staff. He’s basically that college kid who claims to be an environmentalist because he has a girlfriend that likes PETA, when he actually drives an SUV and uses his daddy’s money to buy things made in third world sweatshops.
In the end, Must Love Dukes is a story that thrives on farcical and outlandish behavior, although these characters would play rule-following twits at the most inconvenient moments too, for the sake of plot. You should be prepared to embrace this kind of thing if you want to love this story. Me, I really wonder what happened to the two people in the first chapter.