Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 1-4165-1609-3
Historical Romance, 2006
Sabrina Jeffries’s second book in her School for Heiresses series, Only a Duke Will Do, suffers from the author probably trying to bite off a little more than she can chew. There are so many issues bogging down the relationship between our main characters that it will probably take a year of therapy and counseling, not 367 or so pages, to get these two on the road to normalcy. I don’t know if it’s the author’s intention or she ends up with this result by accident, but heroine Louisa North comes off as the perfect example of an enabler for our jackass hero Simon Tremaine.
Nonetheless, the set-up of this story is actually something more interesting than the banal “silly chit doesn’t want to get married because she is a little girl playing at being a Samaritan!” blurb would suggest. Sure, Louisa doesn’t want to get married, but she has two reasons for this. One, as the illegitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales, she became close to the late Princess Charlotte, only to witnessed the poor dear’s bloody and excruciating ordeal of a childbirth. Louisa has a phobia about giving birth ever since. Two, she is determined to see that reforms are made to protect female prisoners in jails all over England and if she has to use her charities that she plays a big role in to get a radical into the Parliament to make the necessary reforms, she will do so.
The last is a sticky issue with Prinny. It’s 1821 and the bloody massacre of Peterloo is a thorny issue on everyone’s mind. The government blamed the radicals, of course, for the incident even as they do not know how to deal with the popularity of the radicals among the general public. Louisa is playing with fire as Prinny is now stuck between his MPs trying to cause trouble for Louisa and wanting to find a way to advance his own situation to his own benefit in this circumstance. Prinny is far from a benevolent father in this book, make no mistake. He hits on the perfect idea.
Once, he tried to get Simon Tremaine, now the Duke of Foxmoor, to seduce Louisa (without ruining her, of course) for some kind of nonsense. The crap hits the fan, so to speak, and Simon takes the blame to protect Prinny and goes off into “exile” in India, where he becomes what seems like the best ever Governor-General of India for seven years that would earn him the Mahatma Ghandi seal of approval. Except for that sticky incident in Poona, but never fear, he’ll make up for that by becoming the new Prime Minister of England. The people of Poona will surely weep at such noble display of heroic self-sacrifice, I tell you. A deal is made between Simon and Prinny: Simon will marry Louisa and Prinny will make him the new Prime Minister.
This, therefore, is a romance that takes place under false pretenses on the part of the hero. The very frustrating thing here is, Louisa at first deduces correctly a big part of Simon’s motives in paying attention to her again, but the moment he touches her, the heroine’s brainpower flies out the window. He wants to marry her. That means he must really love her! The timing of the big revelation, the circumstances that force them to get married, and the heroine’s reaction to the big revelation are all standard in the sense that readers familiar with stories of this nature can see everything coming from a mile away.
It frustrates me that Sabrina Jeffries puts in details that enable her otherwise generic and overused plot to stand out only to deal with the issues in her story in such an unimaginative and hackneyed manner. Simon is a very problematic hero: his hypocrisy is really off-putting when he demands honesty from Louisa even as he lies to her at the same time. More troubling is how he makes the worst decisions about Louisa, curtailing her freedom and blatantly breaking his promises to her, while easily justifying that he’s doing the right thing. What’s the “right” thing here? That he eventually becomes Prime Minister and Louisa is safe only when she becomes his trophy wife and quietly accepts that her lot as the sex toy in his life and nothing more? He isn’t even planning to become Prime Minister for the right reasons. Not to go into spoilers here, but this man literally hears and reacts to voices in his head. That coupled with his brilliant sense of political stupidity in this story doesn’t make him a reassuring candidate for politics. He pretty much expects the title of Prime Minister to be handed over to him by Prinny and then he’ll somehow make all the reforms he wants – magically, I suppose – and sacks everyone he dislikes in the government. Apparently becoming a Prime Minister with half the Parliament hating his guts is his original idea for reforming England into a better place. Don’t you just want this guy to run your country, people? I think he is confusing “Prime Minister” with “Chairman Mao”.
So Simon hears voices in his head and therefore needs some mood stabilizers. He shows no respect to his wife so he probably needs a few hard kicks in the hind as well. He is either a stupid man or a man with a hopelessly simple view about politics so maybe he needs to go back to school a little more. But what does he get in this book? Plenty of lazy and too-modern psychobabble about how Simon’s past shaped him to be the man he is so Louisa is willing to love him for what he is. It doesn’t help that this lazy use of pop psychology also extends to the more murky issue of Louisa’s phobia of childbirth. The whole “It’s worth it if you love him!” vibe about that particular resolution doesn’t sit well with me because it doesn’t even have historical accuracy as an excuse – the rest of the whole “he’s just misunderstood, all he needs is unconditional and selfless love!” hackneyed psychobabble is too modern to be representative of the mindset of those people in the 19th century.
I probably won’t feel so ill at ease about this romance if the relationship between Simon and Louisa isn’t so horrifically one-sided. Louisa is very weak as a character – right from when they first meet again, Simon is happily manipulating her using sex as if she’s a fiddle and throughout the relationship, he runs roughshod over her very weak attempts to stand her ground. Eventually Louisa starts making excuses for his behavior as if she’s the figurehead of the whole unwise “If you’ll love him, he’ll become the man you love!” ideology. The fact that Louisa’s brainpower flies out the window the moment he touches her doesn’t endear her to me as well.
I think the biggest problem of this book is Ms Jeffries putting in too many issues in her romance and her way of resolving these issues using simplistic pop psychology end up trivializing these issues to a ridiculous extent and making me wonder whether I should feel insulted. Ms Jeffries also tell me too much rather than to show me: the extent the secondary characters (with one notable exception) keep repeatedly cheering Louisa on to forgive or “understand” Simon is ridiculous unless they really hate Louisa, which I doubt is the case. Perhaps if Ms Jeffries just concentrate on two or three issues, she could have found a way to deal with them in a manner that doesn’t smack too much of a Care Bear reenactment of Benny and Joon. There are many issues in this book, by the way. Apart from the issues I’ve mentioned so far, I haven’t even touched on Simon’s own subplots related to the incident in Poona and the issues about his father and some skanky women forcing him to be a jerk to everyone else, the poor, poor man. As a result, for a very long time this book is filled with angst and suffering of both Louisa and me, the reader, because Simon is being an ass, Louisa is either being foiled again and again by Simon thanks to her own weaknesses or becoming so lovingly understanding about Simon’s need for a doormat to make himself feel better, and I am worried that blood will start gushing out from my ears and nostrils.
On the bright side, the problems that have plagued some of the author’s previous books like the prevalence of too obvious and contrived expositional conversations that serve no purpose other than to enlighten the reader are noticeably missing or reduced in number. Unfortunately, Only a Duke Will Do is also a textbook example of a book using very simplistic reasons to excuse the hero’s actions rather than to redeem him. The book also suffers from a prevalence of too much contemporary Oprah moments. The final nail to the coffin is the schizophrenic swing from depressing and joyless bickering and arguing of the main characters in the first two-thirds of the book into an unrealistically sunny Care Bear-like atmosphere in the last few chapters. This book is better written than some of the author’s more recent books in my opinion but unfortunately, this book is one of the least enjoyable as well.