Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-1151-4
Historical Romance, 2011
If you are looking for a historical romance set in England that is different from the usual formulaic story lines, do give Jane Goodger’s When a Duke Says I Do at the very least a cursory glance. There is nothing about the title and the cover art to suggest how refreshingly different this story is from the usual stuff out there. Of course, some suspension of disbelief is required now and then, but that’s not unusual when it comes to books in the genre.
Elsie Stanhope is given a wonderful gift on her 24th birthday by her very indulgent father – her very own mural on the ballroom wall that will make her birthday celebration the talk of the Nottingshire neighborhood. This is because the mural artist, the famous Laurent Desmarais, usually works only for the most loftily titled peers in the land. Good thing her father is rich enough. Elsie soon stumbles upon a secret: Laurent’s hands are weakened by age and rheumatism, and it is Laurent’s assistant, the handsome and very quiet Andre, that does all the painting nowadays. Because Laurent demands absolute privacy for him and his assistant, and Andre works at night, Elsie is soon slipping into the ballroom to talk to him.
Oh, Elsie has plenty to talk about. She is about to be married to the heir of the Duke of Kingston, a marriage contracted by their fathers when Elsie was very young, and now Elsie has to walk down the aisle. Rationally, she knows that her intended, Lord Hathwaite, is easy on the eyes and lacks any disagreeable behavior to make him an undesirable husband, but sometimes she wonders what life would have been if she was free to choose her own path. Oh well, she would miss her sister when she is married and… and… oh no, is she falling in love with Andre?
Andre is actually Alexander Wilkinson, the second son of the Duke of Kingston. Because Alex suffers from selective mutism, he is very shy around strangers that he cannot talk to them unless he has slowly become comfortable around them, and being part of a crowd can give him a serious case of nerves that makes him violently ill. When he finally opens up and talks to Elsie, he realizes that he has fallen in love with her. Now comes the hard part: he will have to find the courage to go back into society, reveal that he’s actually the heir to the title (the eldest son had died), and prove his case before he can marry Elsie. It’s quite a lot to do for a man with his condition.
Both characters are damaged inside. Elsie had a twin sister who just died during the night when they were young, and since then, Elsie has a fear of sleeping in bed. This is why she deliberately seeks out Alex at night – she can’t sleep, after all. Alex was deemed an imbecile by his father, and to make things more heartbreaking, Alex lost his beloved elder brother while they were swimming together, and his father made it clear that the wrong son died. In fact, his father went as far as to banish him to a lunatic asylum (a nice one – he didn’t suffer there, fortunately) and let the world believe that Alex had died. Ms Goodger portrayed these two’s damaged psyche in a sympathetic and even heartbreaking manner without getting too exploitative about things. I also love how normal Elsie comes off as – she is not a one-dimensional martyr or a bluestocking. She comes off instead as a very real rather sheltered young woman who nonetheless has dreams and emotions that I can relate to.
The romance feels too much like an infatuation, which is the reason I understand why the author included an otherwise rather tedious conflict late in the story. Both Elsie and Alex need to look at each other with their rose-tinted shades off before the romance can work, as all those long cozy nights only allowed them to build up romantic fantasy ideals about the other person. They need to realize that they are marrying another human being, not a magic unicorn person who will magically erase all the pain in their heart. However, the way the author executes that conflict is a momentum-killer – after a strong build-up to the denouement in the church, the story begins to plod for the next few chapters.
Another thing that stands out in a perplexing manner is how Alex suddenly goes from a sullen mute into a very eloquent guy who can’t stop telling everyone how hurt he is inside in the last few chapters of this book. I know sex in romance novels can be an amazing experience, but his transformation is too abrupt and unbelievable. It is as if the author realized that she was rushing for time and had to wrap things up very quickly.
Apart from these issues, When a Duke Says I Do is a haunting emotional roller coaster of a book. The author writes like a virtuoso, creating such well-drawn and defined characters that even the secondary characters feel real. Never mind the beautiful woobies Elsie and Alex, there is also Laurent, the cranky and bad-tempered man who is torn between loving Alex for the son he never had and feeling guilty about his deception; Elsie’s aunt, a spinster who is determined to force herself to ignore how lonely she is inside; even Elsie’s intended, Alex’s younger brother, who is portrayed as a typical young buck who resents his father and is willing to give the marriage to Elsie a go if it means a chance to break away from his father’s control over him. There is deliberate sequel baiting and then there is taking the extra mile to create memorable second characters that engage my heart and make me want to read their story. Guess which Ms Goodger has done here. And while the romance between Elsie and Alex initially comes off as too much of a foolish infatuation, the author tries to get them to grow up, although her method of doing so ruins the momentum of the story considerably.
Nothing feels tired or clichéd here, so even if the execution of the story is tad bumpy at times, When a Duke Says I Do is definitely a story worth a look if you are looking for a tale that isn’t a retread of the same handful of old tired story lines out there. I’m definitely saying yes to this one.