Ballantine, $7.99, ISBN 978-0345518853
Historical Romance, 2010
Now, when it comes to fiction, the author sets the stage, determines how her characters speak, think, and behave, and comes up with resolutions to the conflicts that she herself has a hand in creating. Nothing is real. However, for a good work of fiction to work, the author has to convince me, the reader, that her story could very well be real. The problem I have with Tessa Dare’s One Dance with a Duke is that, throughout the whole story, I can never forget that this story isn’t real.
The plot is one of those “Bear with us, just go with the flow” types as it is like a collision of various subplots in an apparent random moment; we get a story from seeing the aftermath of the collision. Amelia d’Orsay’s brother owes Spencer Dumarque, the Duke or Morland, four hundred pounds and Amelia is determined to get Spencer to overlook that debt by appealing to his kindness. Spencer likes to believe that he has been raised by wolves or something and therefore he is now Lt Dunbar with worse table manners. Because he has a ward that he has to present to Society, he deigns to lower himself to mingle with the great unwashed of the Ton by showing up at midnight, dancing with a lady apparently picked at random, and leaving. In romance novels, such behavior is called “dramatic” when it’s done by a hot guy with abs – fat guys lacking abdominal definition best not try this at home, because without those abs and square jaw to distract the ladies, these ladies would peg those guys as whacked.
Spencer and three guys are the Stud Club – no, this is not a sex club thing – where basically we have the Surly One, the Ex-Soldier, and the Guy with Secrets Who Is So Getting the Last Book In This Trilogy trying so hard to badger each other into marrying women of their acquaintance when they are not fighting over a stud horse. The fourth member, the founder Leo, dies and a funnel of light momentarily shines on The Guy with Secrets Who Is So Getting the Last Book, indicating that he’d be shagging Leo’s sister by the last book, so hallelujah, get that book today. We have to build some excitement for that third book in the first book, after all.
Wait, I’m not done yet. Remember Amelia’s brother and his debt? So, anyway, when Spencer shows up at midnight at some ball to demonstrate to everyone that hot guys can get away with all kinds of peculiar behavior, Amelia grabs his hand and tries to nag him into giving her what she wants. Spencer decides that she has amazing breasts. Then he drags her out of the ballroom, and she follows, because we all know stories of this kind do not begin until the heroine has happily ruined her reputation. Then the other two guys show up with news that Leo has died in order to give these three men a chance to find wives, and Amelia decides that she has to go with them in order to comfort Lily – Leo’s sister, who is so getting shagged by That Dude Who Is So Getting the Last Book, because Ms Dare isn’t very subtle here. Throughout the whole carriage ride, the three men argue over who would marry Lily in order to give her a secure life – Leo died, remember? Amelia alternately dwells on her unmarried state and her desire to save the world by making everyone happy when she’s not scolding the men for not respecting a woman’s right to do as she wishes.
Spencer decides, after beating up the Guy Destined to Shag His Dead Friend’s Sister in the Third Book, that he’d like to marry Amelia instead because she has big breasts and she probably scolds him like a nagging mother and he likes that. Amelia tries momentarily to be practical but, knowing that she will be crucified by enraged romance readers for not claiming to be wanting to marry for love and only love, pays some lip service about feeling hesitant because she doesn’t know Spencer. But they get married anyway – no, Leo is the dead guy, Lily is the sister who will be sleeping with Julian of the Third Book, and Amanda, oops, Amelia and Spencer are the main couple of this book. Please pay attention.
So, now that Amelia is destined to join body parts with… what’s his name again? Oh yes, Spencer. Anyway, Spencer’s penetration is imminent, and of course, Amelia gets amazing pleasure out of the experience, because it’s not like she will relish the money and the power that comes with being the wife of the Duke of Morland. Romance heroines don’t do that Victoria Beckham and her bling bling thing, after all. Spencer, however, behaves little better than a dog badly in need of toilet training. Therefore, it is a good thing that Amelia is predisposed to try to fix relationships and bring people together for no reason other than she is a romance heroine and she loves the idea of family so much that she knows all the right things to say.
And yet, she also harbors a blind spot when it comes to her manipulative brother. That has me wondering: how can a woman be simultaneously so determined to be right about everything when it comes to people and so stupid when it comes to her brother? Amelia’s personality doesn’t ring real to me: she seems like a mishmash of romance heroine traits cobbled together without much thought as to whether these traits go together well. By the last page, I suspect that she must have subconsciously believed that she is an alien from Mars sent by Barney the Dinosaur to save people from themselves. It’s either that or she is way too stupid to even qualify for the entrance exam of the Church of Scientology.
As for Spencer, he’s like the charmless version of Lord Dain – he is unbelievably dense at times, but instead of being an entertaining kind of dense, he instead makes the wife work so hard just to prove a point when he could have just laid things out clearly in simple words to her. The thing is, the wife is not the smartest bulb in the house, so he ends up dragging the story deeper into a mire of wrong assumptions and refusals to communicate.
Along the way, historical conventions are ignored when it’s convenient to do so – the heroine happily leaving a party with three men, for example – and reinforced when it’s convenient for the plot – the hero deciding to marry the heroine by using her ruination as an excuse. Characters take turn between being wise and advising the other person in a patronizing manner and being stupid so that the other person can repay the favor.
The end result is an extremely busy yet very artificial story that feels staged from start to finish. I never once manage to lose myself in this story, instead I feel that I am reading an exercise by Ms Dare to demonstrate just how well she can incorporate what she has seen on many daytime talk shows into this story. A part of me wonders whether this whole painful ordeal is a subversive attempt by Ms Dare to demonstrate how painful martyr heroines can be and how these heroines’ martyrdom is actually painful self-absorption in motion. Even if that is the case, this book is still a most trying read all the same. I can only hope that the story of the Ex-Soldier And Dude Getting the Second Book by Default is more interesting and less all over the place compared to this discordant mess.