Things are looking up reading-wise since my last post. I had a few quiet days at home to catch up on work and find some leisure reading time. DNF-ing a few turgid titles helped too: there’s no greater reading downer than that awful reviewer’s ARC-obligation. You can kill it with snark, or you can kill it by shutting down the Kindle before crossing the reading Rubicon. You know, that point where you’ve bloody read 68% of The Thing and you might as well finish it. Enough, though, of reading despondency.
I made a few decisions about reading and things are looking up. When I’m in a romance-reading slump, there’s only one author who can coax me back from the reading blues: Betty Neels. I put the ARC list away and started Betty Neels’s Tabitha In Moonlight (you can follow along with my nightly #bathtubromreading hashtag on Twitter). I put Frankopan’s The Silk Roads away for a less fraught working time. Then, I plunged back into the ARC pile with the express purpose of divesting myself of a few more dreary, meh titles. What I found instead was a funny, charming, flawed little romance in new-to-me Lenora Bell’s What A Difference A Duke Makes. It has all the eyebrow-raising qualities of wallpaperhood, but it delighted me. It’s first in a new series and I liked the characters so much that I’m looking forward to reading the second, about the hero’s Egyptologist sister and her archaeological rival and nemesis.
Bell’s romance opens with the heroine, 20-year-old Miss Mari (“rhymes with starry”) Perkins, newly arrived to London from Derbyshire to act as governess. Though not originally meant for an aristocratic family post, circumstances conspire, well Mari does, to land her in the Duke of Bansford’s troubled household: “Four governesses. Two months. One man at the end of his rope.” Bell rocks Mari’s character, echoing my favourite fictional plucky orphan, Anne of Green Gables, nodding to Mary Poppins, tipping a hat to Jane Eyre, and paying homage to The Sound Of Music‘s Maria. The duke, Edgar, is possessed of precocious twin horrors, Michel and Adele (another nod to Jane), his illegitimate offspring from a long-over, callow-youth mistake with an older woman named Sophie. Though Edgar only recently found out about the orphans, it’s a testament to his honourable character that he brings them home and offers them a life no different from one he’d share with legitimate children.
Though it later proved flawed in several ways, What A Difference A Duke Makes won me over because it was funny. Here’s one of my favourite exchanges between Edgar and Mari:
“Your shoulders – ” said the duke, staring in the general direction of her bosom ” – are insufficiently brawny.”
“Ah … I do apologize, Your Grace. I will begin performing strengthening exercises immediately.”
Another frown. “And your smile is suspiciously cheerful.”
He didn’t want cheerful. Mari instantly dropped the smile. “How impertinent of it. I specifically told it to be stern and capable.” She matched the thunderous frown on the duke’s face.
His eyes narrowed and he tapped his pen against the blotter. “Flippancy is not a trait I’m looking for in a governess.”
“I meant no disrespect, Your Grace,” she replied, keeping her expression neutral and humorless. He watched her closely. She widened her stance in an attempt to appear more substantial. She held her breath, sending a silent prayer heavenward.
“You’re too small, Perkins,” he said.
“Never judge things by their appearance, Your Grace, I’m stronger than I appear.”
“You’re too small, Perkins.” He dipped his quill in his gold filigree inkwell, signaling the end of the interview. “You won’t do.”
Mari convinces him with humour, good will, kindness to the children, and consideration to all that she will do just fine. And, of course, this being a romance novel, it isn’t long before Mari and Edgar want to do each other. Bell, though she inserts lusty, maybe insta ones, intervals, and adds dollops of angst, continues as witty and fun as the above. In particular, there’s a pharaonic reenactment that is NOT to be missed. The children are a hoot, but with their idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities. They’re believable people in their own right and I liked them very much, as I did Mari with them and Edgar too.
Though Edgar-Mari are a lot of fun, Bell did indulge in a few narrative shortcuts: telling us much to start and taking this reader out of the narrative. Bell also gave Sophie, the “bad mother” and “other woman” to Mari as nurturing paragon, an overly melodramatic back-story. When romance authors vilify the “other woman,” I want to yell “leave her alone! You’ve killed her off, must you also paint her black?” ‘Tis one of rom’s more pernicious conventions. Though my love for Mari never wavered, Edgar grated. Okay Bell leached him of any class prejudices vis-à-vis Mari and the children, well, good, and admirable, but his ducal humility of unworthiness annoyed me. For REASONS, he worked in a foundry and is now building steam engines, not a ducal pursuit. He’s left respectability behind by acknowledging his illegitimate children and gone and fallen in love with the governess, must he also berate himself and “break his pate across”? Calm down, man, I often thought, and enjoy the fruits of your social rebellion? Don’t go on and on in an arrogance of irredeemability?
Yet, there was enough of humour and banter, adorable kids, and a tender love story, that I read and enjoyed Bell’s What A Difference A Duke Makes. With Miss Austen, I would say that Bell’s effort, in the end, showed evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. How could it not with lines such as these two gems? (I can’t resist, I loved them so):
“Walk with decorum, if you please, children,” she called as they ran out of the room. “We are not lions scenting gazelles.”
Lord Laxton lifted Lady Blanche into his arms. “Make way, make way. She’s fainted. She needs air.” “She’s in a park,” said Mari.
Lenora Bell’s What A Difference A Duke Makes is published by Avon Books. It was released on March 27 and my be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from Avon Books, via Edelweiss+.