Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-284104-9
Historical Romance, 2018
One of the downsides of following an author for a long time is that sometimes it’s like being chained to the author as everything goes down with the ship. Maybe it’s the author losing her fire, or maybe my tastes have changed, but whatever the reason is, the books stop working. There will a long period of me buying the newer books and being disappointed by each one, while telling myself that that the older books were so good so maybe, maybe the next one will work. This is not a pleasant phase to go through, and I sadly realize that I am going through it when it comes to Karen Ranney. Her offerings in the last few years had been more misses than hits, but To Love a Duchess is just excruciating to read.
This is a story in which the heroine Suzanne Whitcomb is the one who undergoes the usual “brooding boo-boo becomes happier after being touched by love” character arc, a rather rare occurrence these days when romance authors see more dollar bills in centering everything from character development to sequel value around the alpha male character’s oversized phallus. Our heroine is a merchant’s daughter who made an advantageous marriage to the now dead Duke of Marsley. The marriage was predictably terrible, and now Suzanne flails around hating this side of everything and refusing everything else when she’s not being bullied and pushed around by her maid, her father, and various random secondary characters.
Our hero Adam Drummond is ex-military, and he has an ax to grind when it comes to the dead duke, as that duke was a typical military know-nothing whose arrogance led many good soldiers to unnecessary deaths. In fact, the dead fellow is suspected to be a traitor that sold out his people in India, and Adam’s latest gig is to pose as a majordomo in Suzanne’s household to locate the convenient journal left behind that the villain that contains incriminating evidence. Alas, after saving the heroine from what seems like a suicide attempt, he realizes that he has also signed up become her babysitter. Fortunately, she looks hot and is all vulnerable and needy, and he’s that kind of man who finds such traits attractive.
The overall atmosphere of this story is one of dreary misery, mostly because Suzanne is so immersed in her grief that she literally doesn’t do anything for long stretches of stories. People have to push her, cajole her, or when it comes to the meaner characters, bully her into getting out of bed. Our heroine’s internal monologues all reek of negative feelings. She detests everything she has to do, she doesn’t like everything, she doesn’t want to know anything, she just doesn’t want to do anything. Consequently, the heroine is a very passive creature who just gives out very negative vibes all the time. Because I have no idea why she is like this for so long, following Suzanne is a very frustrating experience. Her maid is so obviously up to no good forcing her to drink her “tonics” all the time, and I feel like throttling Suzanne every time she insists that she hates this and that even as she passively lets people push her into doing those things. I try to be patient with her, but my blood pressure suffers as a result.
Adding to the tedium is how the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere for a long time. Adam can’t find the journal, and because I see more of him mooning after or chasing after Suzanne as she veers like a hapless rag doll from one corner of the room to the next, when he’s not complaining that he wants out from the gig because he’s too attracted to the corpse-like lady of the house, I can only wonder whether he should have just tried harder. Suzanne seems to be dragged from one point to another without any indication that the points will all lined up to some good place (a sanatorium will be nice), so I eventually start to feel that the author is just doing all this to see how long I can stand Suzanne without gnawing at the book.
Eventually, Suzanne meets a cause that she can get into, and then, she easily shrugs off most of her suicidal and melancholic tendencies just like that and even fires her maid. Wait, what happened to the realistic, poignant emotional resonance that was present in the author’s older books? Here, emotional journeys are truncated, going from 10,000 POINTS OF DESPAIR!!! to 10,000 POINTS OF LUSTINESS!!! in the blink of an eye as if things were as simple as flipping a switch in the character’s head. Suzanne’s “epiphany” isn’t even consistent – she wants to care of the cause, but when the cause hits too close to home, she refuses to lift a finger to help those who are affected.
The romance is dull because like other emotional aspects of the story, the attraction between Adam and Suzanne jump from longing to boinking in an abrupt manner that I find unbelievable. Adam talks a lot about how she is a widowed duchess while he is just some nobody, but all this is just lip service to add to the catalogue of angst in this story. The differences in their status in society certainly doesn’t affect their happy ending despite all that gnashing on his part. The mystery… well, let me just say that it’s like a Scooby-Doo denouement. After sloughing through the dreary arm-flailing and brooding of the main characters, you think you know that this fellow has to be the villain? No, surprise, it’s that other fellow! Ha-ha, fooled you, it’s that other, other fellow! A lot of the nonsense the villain gets away with is due to the heroine being a clueless, passive idiot and the hero focusing more on brooding and babysitting that idiot instead of paying attention to what is happening around them.
To Love a Duchess is all about wading through dreary whining, complaining, moping, chest-thumping, and flailing from unlikable characters, all for a measly pay-off. If that’s not a form of torture in itself, I don’t know what is. And this is a book by Karen Ranney, which only adds an extra helping of heartbreak on top of the agony of the whole experience.