Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-267602-3
Historical Romance, 2018
When a Duke Loves a Woman – what makes these people think that this would be an interesting title? Of course he’d love a woman, it’s not like he’d love a donkey or a chimpanzee. But that’s this story in a nutshell. It has its share of moments, but it’s also such an ordinary story that it probably deserves its generic, nondescript title. Oh, and yes, I know it’s a play on that song title, because yes, clearly it hasn’t been done before and that’s why it’s such a special title, snort.
Ettie Trewlove, a widow, runs a home for unwanted bastard brats of noblemen, because she heard from someone who did the same thing that it was a good way to make money. However, she soon learns that she loves her charges too much, and she is too softhearted to turn away any more kids left at her doorstep even when it costs her more than she makes to keep the babies safe and well-fed.
What, you’d love to read a story with such a heroine? Too bad, you’re getting a more generic heroine: Gillie, the baby girl she took in in the prologue now grown up and moping that she can never be with the hero because he’s a duke and she’s only a tavern owner, and hence he will never marry her, sob sob sob.
Gillie takes in a wounded Antony Coventry, the Duke of Thornley, when he gallivanted around Whitechapel looking for the woman that left him standing at the altar, only to be beset by thieves who beat him bad when he refused to surrender his watch. Thorne and she bond when they sit up and talk in order to help him avoid getting a concussion, that kind of thing, so they can’t stop thinking of one another even after he recovers and goes his way to Posh Town.
This early part of the story is also easily its best part, as it focuses on two likable, if somewhat saintly, people establishing a rapport and eventually a connection. He is a nice guy who doesn’t seem to mind when the lady is bossing him around, and she seems feisty and sassy in a good way. This is also the part which has the main characters interacting in a most natural way, without romance novel conventions coming in to force Gillie to contort herself in a way to conform to the formula.
Alas, this part has to end and we move to the next act. Thorne can’t just dissolve the marriage that never happened, as the family of Lavinia, his MIA bride-to-be, is determined to have him as their beneficial son-in-law. Hence, our hero feels that he owes it to both himself and Lavinia to find her and at the very least assure himself that she is safe and sound. Guess whom he asks to help him locate that lady. As you can imagine, Gillie quickly does that “I can’t have you, I won’t have you, although you can certainly have me like this and that because of true love, and I don’t care what you say because I know best so I CAN’T HAVE YOU BOO-HOO-HOO GET OUT FOR YOUR OWN GOOD AFTER GETTING INSIDE ME ONE LAST TIME FOR THAT MEMORY THAT I WILL CHERISH FOREVER WAH WAH WAH!” tango as if the world would end if she ever deviated from the acceptable romance heroine code of conduct.
On one hand, it’s nice that Lavinia isn’t some stereotypical spoiled, selfish ho – she’s more like a romance heroine who is allowed to carry out her harebrained schemes – but yikes, the whole second act makes sense only if I compare things against the romance novel formula. When a Duke Loves a Woman is part of a series which sees English society to be a figurative elevator in which people go from nobody to nobility without anyone blinking or acting outraged. Even Gillie’s brother took this elevator successfully. Hence, it makes zero sense for Gillie to believe that she is not allowed to take that elevator up even when Thorne is pressing on the “open” button and begging her to jump inside with him. She comes off as someone more in love with being a martyr than in Thorne.
Of course, we all know the author likely has the heroine behaving this way because it is assumed that romance readers will revolt should the heroine just said okay and married the duke right away. Even so, it is up to her to put in a good excuse for the heroine to behave this way within the context of the story.
Even if I ignore the fact that this one is part of the series, and assume that Gillie’s refusal to have a ring on her finger is because she is aware of the impending social outrage that would greet her marriage to a duke, our heroine’s insistence that Thorne must dump her and find a new bride still makes little sense. What’s to stop Thorne from getting married and still keeping Gillie on the side as a mistress?
It’s odd and even contradictory that Gillie insists on thumbing up her nose at social conventions and being rude to Thorne’s mother because she is supposed to be so awesomely American-like that way – screw the nobles, whee! – while at the same time she is slavishly determined to uphold those same social conventions that dictate whom she could have a relationship with. If she’s so whee and daring and screw the rules, then hey, be his mistress. Let him get a wife and beget an heir and a spare, because they both know he will always come back to her. Who cares about marriage, right? But no, to Gillie, it’s marriage or nothing.
Again, we all know that the author does this because it is expected for a romance novel to end with a marriage, but come on, if that is the case, then the author should have found a way to still make Gillie’s behavior here rational and reasonable. Instead, Gillie comes off as a puppet whose moods and motivations are determined by whatever the author needs them to be, in order to conform to acceptable romance novel rules.
Hence, When a Duke Loves a Woman hit the feels mostly in the first act or so, which is also the part that feels the least contrived. Everything else is formula city. There’s good here, and then there’s the not-so-good, with both aspects negating one another and making this one land squarely in the just okay territory. Thus, three oogies.