Until Miss Bates read Jeannie Lin’s Jade Temptress, she’d despaired of recent historical romances. Her faith was restored by Lin’s 9th-century-China tale of mystery and romance, that of the smooth, skillful writing and historical authenticity. Okay, Miss Bates thought, maybe it’s the European historical one should give up … and then she read Duran’s Fool Me Twice and, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth says, “mine eyes are made the fools of the other senses.” Miss Bates was all eyes the two days it took her to read Duran’s novel: eyes glued to e-reader through workplace lunch hours, sneaked-in quarter hours, and staying up too late only to appear bleary-eyed at the breakfast table until she was delivered of a thoroughly satisfying end by late afternoon. Duran has been a favourite since Miss Bates was enthralled by The Duke of Shadows to the more recent, and one of Miss Bates’ favourite romance novels, A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal. Everything that appealed in those, Miss Bates found in gentler mode in Fool Me Twice: a sensitivity to the class issues of the day, a complex heroine, a flawed and compelling hero, wondrously good writing, a central couple who talk more than they couple and embody a meeting of equals akin to Jane and Rochester, who ” … stood at God’s feet, equal … ”
“He thought that he had control, and that everything he did, was done perfectly.” How the mighty are fallen when Fool Me Twice opens. Alastair de Grey, fifth duke of Marwick, is not half the man he used to be. He’s a colossal mess: cuckolded by his wife, widowered by her opium addiction. He’s a cowering shambles who’s been hiding in his house for ten months, never leaving his room, body and looks gone to ruin, drinking and brooding on revenge against his wife’s lovers. Into his life comes Miss Olivia Johnson, housekeeper, too young and educated for the position. A bottle flies at her head when she confronts the lion in his lair. Alastair’s characterization is a study in despair and loss of purpose; he is a man who, because he so arrogantly believed in his own intellectual powers, thought he could understand and read people as well … until Margaret, his Victorian trophy wife, proved him wrong: ” … his own ignorance, the immense space of all the things he had not guessed and never suspected. He, who had prided himself on foreseeing everything.” He is a man in need of resurrection, spiritual, intellectual, sexual, emotional. Olivia, a survivor of loss and censure herself, without Alastair’s wealth, privilege, or status to bolster her, has buoyed herself her entire life. Her example strong, it should shame him; it does, but not initially, he’s too sad. Though she’s in his home under pretense, name and purpose, Olivia is a compassionate woman; she cannot help but recognize a wounded creature: “She saw deep shadows beneath his eyes, almost like bruises. He looked like a man in the grip of a fever, burning up from within.” She cannot help but reach out to heal, ” ‘You are so much more than this,’ she whispered.” Miss Bates loved Olivia’s handling of Alastair (who’s lovely in his own right) because it didn’t only take the form of gentle coaxing and caring, Olivia wields tough love (and when it’s couched in literary allusion, all the more credit to Duran and romance meta-fiction): ” ‘ … why do you read Austen if you lack all hope for yourself? Why torment yourself with happy endings if you don’t believe one is possible?’ ” One of the many delights of this romance novel is that the heroine and hero’s battleground is littered not with bruising kisses (though the kisses and more are very nice too, thank you, Ms Duran) but books and chess pieces.
” ‘I suppose I want somewhere to … belong. To feel safe,’ she said softly.” Olivia Johnson (aka Mather, aka Holloway) is a woman beset by danger. She is a survivor and to survive, she’s a wanderer on this earth. She’s had to change her name, profession, friends, home. She is a woman who wants only, as she says herself, a place “to belong. To feel safe.” She finds this in resurrection-through-verbal-sparring with her employer, Alastair, Duke of Marwick. When she arrives, despite her lowly class status, she has everything to teach him, even while she plots to take advantage of him … only motivated by saving her life; her deception is not for any gain beyond her very life. She effects his resurrection because this is who she is; when she strengthens him, he has something to teach her too. He wants to possess her strength and confidence and this is embodied in sexual attraction (which is supremely refreshing in a RomanceLand wasteland of insta-lust). Miss Bates loved Olivia for her strength, wit, and smarts, but in particular by her response to love-making. Miss Bates thought it delightful characterization when Olivia thinks thus, “He had kissed her … She’d behaved like a wanton. Who would have guessed it? She made herself scowl. This was nothing to be proud of. But mama had always told her that passion could make one a fool … all she wanted to do was remain right here … to see what he might do next … and what she might do, what she might learn of herself.” Wow. What one might learn about oneself. She transcends class and upbringing because she is a thinker, because she is intellectually curious and self-reflective. When she brings Alastair back to life and sets him free, he can match her offering with his, “By his side, she discovered new parts of herself fashioned from steel and armor, parts that she liked very much.”
“A frisson seemed to pass between them, a moment of unwanted understanding: they were not only master and servant. They were also a man and a woman, alone together behind closed doors, with the feel of each other still burning on their skin.” Like Miss Bates’ beloved Jane Eyre, Fool Me Twice is a cross-class romance and, like hugs-to-heart Jane Eyre, it neither dismisses the class issue between hero and heroine, nor makes it impassable: this is a romance and romance is hope and possibility. Like Jane Eyre, class is transcended in the recognition of humanity, as if the romantic couple stood before God as renewed, redeemed Adam and Eve. Jane says to Rochester, “I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal – as we are!” Miss Bates loved that Alastair is a gentler, kinder, more socially conscious Rochester, “Attraction between master and servant went against all codes of decency. But sometimes, inevitably, it did happen. How one handled it marked one’s status as an honourable gentleman.” Honour dictates that he stay away from his housekeeper. Recognizing the other beyond social convention dictates a stripping away of determinants to the essential person, “He looked at her. Really looked at her, in this space that echoed with memories of a life that had nothing to do with him now” and ” … he spotted the precise moment she realized he was walking toward her. Another man would have missed the fractional widening of her eyes. But not he. He saw what others would miss. He saw her.” This opens the way to a new life, a different way of being in the world. Alastair’s experience is echoed in Olivia’s realization that status and privilege do not protect against pain, disappointment, or fear, ” ‘A person’s wealth has little to do with their spiritual state. Anyone who feels alone in the world, and put upon, and friendless – I call that person worthy of fellow feeling.’ ” Alastair and Olivia as a Jane and Rochester culminate in one of the most romantic avowals Miss Bates has read in the genre; Alastair says to Olivia, his “plain” housekeeper, ” ‘Yours was the first face I’d seen in months, after all. The face I saw through the darkness. And it seems that I know it better than you do, if you doubt your own beauty.’ “
Miss Bates loved Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice; therein, she found “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Duran’s wonderful romance novel has been available since March 25th from Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) and found at the usual vendors in the usual formats.
Miss Bates is indebted to Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
Are you a fan of the cross-class romance? What are your favourites? Does it “work” as well in contemporary romance (is it even feasible there?) as in historical? What are its problematic aspects?