Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-234906-4
Historical Romance, 2017
The meaning of the word has changed over time, but these days, “bathos” is a word used to mean the polar opposite of “pathos”: the use of humor to abruptly change the mood of a scene, say, from serious or scary to ludicrous. This word sometimes comes up in critical reviews of anything touched by Joss Whedon as well as of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, to describe how every scene needs to have one-liners that end up ruining any weight present in that particular scene. I think that word applies to Tessa Dare’s The Duchess Deal as well.
Basically, we have another badly-scarred dude, George the Earl of Ashbury, who now laments the fact that all the hot women who used to be the main courses in his regular flesh buffet now go, “Eeek, take that thing away from my face, you freak!” at him. Oh, and his estate manager was being naughty, et cetera. I’d say this is what you get when you abandon your responsibilities to your title, tenants, and properties to go pew pew pew at the French, but Ash would rather just go ooh, the phantom of the opera is here, inside your mind PAM-PAM-PAM-PAM-PAM. Oh, and he needs to have an heir.
Our heroine, seamstress Emma Gladstone, needs money. Ash’s former fiancée ordered a wedding gown at her employer’s store, and now that the wedding is off, Emma isn’t getting paid. Unfortunately, rent is due, she needs coal for the fire, et cetera, so she wears that dress to storm Ash’s place and ask for the money that she feels is owed to her. Ash and she immediately begin trading sarcastic barbs, and he decides to offer to marry her. Why not? He needs a wife to make an heir, so chop chop, let’s get to it so that he can go back to his pity party act. Oh. and the sex must be done under dark, and after the baby is born, he’s going to stop with the shagging. Emma, however, is going to challenge him because she’s so sassy and feisty like that. And I know this is a romance novel because all that sex under the dark can still be so good that Ash realizes that, oh no, he must stop having sex with this willing, horny wife of his as it will only make things complicated. There is no hell like living with an accommodating, hot, sexy woman who doesn’t find him repulsive, you see. Pity him; touch his pee-pee today.
The Duchess Deal is a very typical offering by this author: very contemporary in nature despite its historical setting, humor, and some angst. The problem here is that the author operates on the principle that every scene must have at least one flippant one-liner, regardless of context, and a result, this dilutes a lot of the emotional weight a scene may have at any given moment. Think about it, the hero gifts the heroine with a lovely thing. the rousing romantic music in your head swells as you sigh and wonder whether the hot-headed mule is finally going to admit that he loves the heroine… and then he cracks a joke. The heroine shares her heartbreaking story about her past… and then he cracks a joke and she gives a flippant sarcastic response. If there is a romance novel equivalent to a boner killer, this book has it in spades. Every time things threaten to become sentimental, heartbreaking, anything… wait, we can’t have that, quick someone crack some one-liner STAT.
As a result, it is hard to feel anything about this story. Bathos may work in, say, action-paced movies where one-liners at the end of a suspenseful death-defying moment allows viewers to laugh along and come back down to earth, but too much of it in a romance novel ends up downplaying any emotional resonance present within its pages. Not to mention, George’s pity party is usually more palatable if he goes all melodramatic with his angst, to show readers that he is really suffering, et cetera, and arouse these readers’ pity. A flippant joke-tossing George, on the hand, comes off as far less sympathetic. Since he can be so rude and sarcastic, his pity party feels more trivial as a result, and those moments when he’s being an ass to Emma makes him seem even more of a petty, crybaby twat.
Emma has a bewilderingly easy time fitting in as well, as there is no shortage of friendly maids and “eccentric” noble ladies that are more than happy to be her BFFs and help her out. This makes it harder for me to be emotionally invested in this story, and I really need all the reasons I can get.
At the end of the day, The Duchess Deal is a painless read, but it is completely lightweight due to all the bathos. I don’t care for the characters or their issues; I just haw-haw-haw at the designated moments, roll up my eyes now and then, and then, when I hit the last page, put down the book and do something else without giving what I’ve read any further thought.