Okay, I forgive Julie Anne Long everything. You’re in for another (much longer) rant, but at least this one’s almost all joy.
Yesterday I read the fifth book in the Pennyroyal Green series, What I Did For a Duke. I will use every adjective in my vocabulary (okay, I probably won’t, but superlatives will be thick on the ground, too) to try and express how much I loved this book.
It has been a long, long time since a historical romance got me like this.
Let’s get the premise out of the way first: The Duke of Moncrieffe has a bad reputation for serving revenge cold, even years after the fact. He has just found his fiancee in bed with Ian Eversea. He’s not happy. He’s also almost forty (this is often expressed in italics in the characters’ thoughts. I’m not entirely sure what the emphasis is getting at, but it feels cheeky, and I like it). He decides to seduce Ian’s youngest sister, then break her heart and leave her.
He just happens to catch her at a really bad time.
Genevieve’s best friend, Harry, has just told her that he plans to propose to her other best friend, Millicent. This breaks her heart rather severely, as she’d always assumed she would marry Harry. So when the Duke comes along, demanding her attention, she’s really not in the mood. She does everything she can to get rid of him, he does everything he can to get a response from her, and pretty soon they’re head-over-heels in fascination with each other.
The things I love about this book:
1. The Duke is an amazing hero. Ten out of ten.
He gradually unfolds as a character, so that we get to know him as Genevieve does. This is such a difficult, subtle piece of craft, and I applaud JAL for having the trust and patience to do it. He’s certainly magnetic right from the get-go, but he’s not an obvious choice. Characters are very often represented in this light, but only in-so-far as we’re told “He wasn’t an obvious choice” whilst seeing all the ways he obviously is. The slow reveal meant I could get to know him and fall in love with him piece by piece, too.
He’s also truly smart. The “hypothesis” of the book seems to be Experience Makes For Interesting People (you have to break eggs to make an omelet), and the Duke proves it every step of the way. He’s not just smart in the wordy way of Regency heroes – his conversation is challenging, and tough, and he doesn’t let up. He’s mature and experienced enough to push for answers even when Genevieve’s hugely reluctant, or embarrassed, or defensive. He allows those feelings to be present and demands something of her anyway. Which is how transformation really does happen, in my experience.
2. Genevieve is a gorgeous heroine – very much in the same vein as Beatrix Hathaway. A truly likeable heroine, which is a hard thing to pull off.
This is, in a sense, an ugly duckling story. Genevieve is “the quiet, sensible one” of the reckless Eversea family, but that’s not what she thinks she is, and that’s not what the Duke sees. But JAL – thank God! – never gave her a look-where-being-good-got-me,-I’m-going-to-do-something-crazy moment. No matter how well those moments are constructed, something always rings false about them to me. Genevieve never breaks character because she doesn’t perceive herself as others see her, so she continues to act according to her own nature – the difference being that she now has an audience and antagonist who also sees her truly. This is, again, fantastic writing.
3. The characters’ physicality is built over time as well, as an expression of how they come to see each other. One of my favourite moments in the whole book is when the Duke thinks: He’d never known a more clawing hunger for a woman’s body, and it shocked him, and he was clever enough to know it had only a little to do with her body.
Yes! Finally! I think so few romance writers think this connection through deeply enough – that all the heaving bosoms and luscious curves and pillow-like lips are an expression of attraction to a person, not a body.
4. I can’t say too much on this point without spoilers, and as I encourage all of you to read this book, I don’t want to indulge in those. All I’ll say is: JAL deals with the Big Misunderstanding that gets the plot rolling (i.e. the Duke is out to seduce Genevieve for his own, bad reasons) in such a brilliant way. She makes the BM work a lot harder than it would if she had dealt with it in a traditional “I’m keeping a secret that could destroy you” way.
What didn’t work for me:
1. By two-thirds of the way through, the plot rested too heavily on Harry’s thin shoulders. We’re reminded over and over how much Genevieve loves him – even when it’s become jarringly evident she doesn’t. That works. We can see the trajectory of her self-discovery through it. But there wasn’t enough of why she loved him in the first place – he was too thin and insubstantial – for this to hold up its end of Genevieve’s motivations for as long as it had to. She’s a smart chicken. She would have figured it out before then.
2. JAL really needs to get a new editor. Whenever I read her stuff my enjoyment is continually interrupted by bad grammatical errors and bad word repetitions (by this I mean: the repetition isn’t there to create a lyrical effect, it’s just lazy writing. A relief that was hugely relieving, for example). She also has a tendency to overwrite, which mostly pays off and occasionally doesn’t. A good editor should be on the lookout for all these things.
This Julie Anne Long book makes my top five. Go read it.