Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Love Letters From a Duke," by Elizabeth Boyle

Alternate Title: Liars, Tramps, and Thieves

The Chick: Felicity Langley. During four years of correspondence with the heir to the Duke of Hollindrake, she believes they've reached an unspoken agreement to become betrothed. Hearing that he'll be in London to officially accept the title of Duke, she cobbles together enough funds to set herself, her sister Tally and cousin Pippin, up in London as well, to finally meet him and fulfill her life's ambition of becoming a Duchess.
The Rub: Her new footman Thatcher insists on inspiring entirely new and untoward feelings in her - but her situation (as well as Tally's and Pippin's) is run on shoestrings and lies. If she fails to win the duke, she'll be ruined.
Dream Casting: Gossip Girl's Blake Lively.

The Dude: Aubrey Michael Thomas Sterling, Duke of Hollindrake, a.k.a. "Captain Michael Thatcher." After returning home upon his grandfather's death, the new Duke (who'd previously been fighting on the Continent under an assumed name), discovers his grandfather impersonated him through letters and betrothed him to someone he's never met, without his knowledge. Outraged, Aubrey arrives on the chit's doorstep to cry off...
The Rub: ...only to be mistaken for a footman thanks to his ragged travelling clothes. However, he maintains the ruse in order to discover how this very unconventional woman managed to ensnare his starchy old grandpa.
Dream Casting: Zachary Quinto.

The Plot:
Thatcher: Hey, uh, about your relationship with my grand-

Felicity: Hurry up footman, and get in here! It's not proper for a duchess' footman to gape so, for I'm going to be a duchess, seeing as I'm going to be marrying a duke. So that would make me a duchess. Eventually. Duchess, Duchess, Duchess - it's such a lovely word when I say it over and over, isn't it?

Thatcher: What kind of con are you running, lady?

Felicity: Con? Moi? *300 pages of flat-out lies, denials and cover ups*

Thatcher: You are nuttier than a Christmas pudding - and I find that strangely attractive.

Felicity: La la la! I can't hear you! DUCHESS DUCHESS DUCHESS!

Thatcher: But I'm pretty!

Felicity: Oh, you are pretty. Fine, let's get married.

Thatcher: Oh, by the way - I'm a DUKE.

Felicity: You - you lied to me! How dare you - lying violates the sacred trust between people, it's the most foulest crime known to man, it's trampling of honest values, how could you--

Thatcher: Uh-huh. *makes Felicity read first 300 pages of Love Letters From a Duke*

Felicity: Oh, right, that's what I do. We're perfect for each other! Let's get married for real!

Thatcher: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Lusty Footman (or IS he?)

1 Proper, Wealthy Miss (or IS she?)

1 Dastardly Pirate (or IS he?)

1 Inconveniently Dead Father (or IS he?)

1 Very Bad Mother (or IS she?)

Several Thousand Blatant Lies

1 Stolen House

1 Big Misunderstanding

1 Slutty and Possibly Murderous Gold-Digging Nanny

The Word: Felicity Langley is going to be a Duchess. Her nickname is Duchess, she'll tell anyone who'll listen that she's going to be a Duchess, she's spent years training to become the proper Duchess, and she's all set to become betrothed to a Duke. After sending the heir to the Duke of Hollindrake a frank letter proposing marriage, she started a four-year correspondence with the man which leaves her absolutely convinced that an official betrothal is right around the corner.

Which is a good thing, because she's absolutely broke. Thanks to events which were apparently the result of earlier novels in the series (Something About Emmaline and This Rake of Mine), and are very poorly explained in this novel, Felicity, her twin sister Tally, and cousin Pippin, live on a very meagre allowance - not enough for a proper Season. However, when the old Duke of Hollindrake dies, meaning the new Duke has to come to London to be invested into the House of Lords, Felicity knows she and her cohorts can't stay in Sussex, but have to go to London to seal the deal.

However, unbeknownst to her, her secret penpal was never Aubrey Sterling (the new Duke), but his late grandfather. Aubrey, recently returned from the wars on the Continent (where he fought under the name "Thatcher"), discovers his grandfather's deception and, furious, takes himself off to Felicity's town house to break whatever arrangement his grandpa made. However, when Felicity opens the door, she takes one look at his tattered clothing and jumps to the conclusion that he is applying to be their new footman. After Thatcher's several initial attempts to correct her are deflected by cutesy how-convenient interruptions and outbursts, he decides to go with the flow, just so he can figure out the extent of her craziness.

Which is how he discovers that Felicity's "London Season" is really an enormous house of cards composed of so many lies, thefts, and half-truths that it's amazing (and not a little unrealistic) it doesn't come crashing down on her head at the slightest puff of wind. Her elegant town house? Stolen. Her bizarre chaperone Aunt Minty? A retired pickpocket rescued from the streets. Thatcher's wages? Not forthcoming in the least. The only thing supporting this rickety charade is Felicity's fervent belief that the Duke of Hollindrake is only waiting for the perfect moment to honour their agreement and sweep her off into wealthy, titled bliss.

This belief of hers troubles Thatcher not a little. At first, he's convinced she's an unscrupulous, power-hungry meddler, and continues to be her "footman" in order to find out how far deep her connection to his grandfather goes, but as he slowly starts to fall for her, his motive changes. Now he does want to marry Felicity, but he wants to be sure their marriage is based on love, and not on her single-minded determination to be a Duchess. So, while she struggles to keep her ducal goal in sight, Thatcher starts to charm her under the guise of a humble footman.

It was very difficult to get into this book for the first 200 pages. Theoretically, I understood and appreciated the novel's general concept. Our heroine is a woman who is openly determined to marry for wealth and prestige. Our hero is a Duke who, with a flash of his ducal coronet, could have the woman of his dreams falling over herself to get into his pants, but instead he wants to win her honestly with his own bare charms and convince her that romantic love truly exists. It's just a shame that the heroine and hero were so irritating and poorly developed.

While eventually I learned to tolerate Felicity, the novel's opening chapters with her were nigh unbearable. For the vast majority of the novel, she's either lying or denying. Whenever she's not privately lying, cheating, and stealing without a shred of remorse, she's publicly an officious, meddlesome, high-handed and self-righteous bastion of propriety. She really has no problem using whatever means at hand to obtain her ends, regardless of their legality, morality, or affect on other people. She squats in a house that belongs to other people, she hires a footman without any intention of paying him, and she spins all sorts of half-truths to convince people of her own importance, and all with the belief that once she's a Duchess, none of it will matter.

I suppose the ultimate hypocrisy of her goal (using improper means to convince others of her propriety) is supposed to be funny, but her unique mixture of self-absorbed righteous dishonesty was particularly grating. I'll admit I thawed a bit towards her after a couple hundred pages when it became apparent she was doing this to support (the equally penniless) Tally and Pippin as well as herself. She also earns points from me for being one of the first romance heroines I've ever encountered whose concern for the social and financial consequences of sex is strong enough to make her interrupt world-changing nookie.

I wasn't too impressed with Thatcher. While I understood and rather enjoyed his reasons for continuing the deception, his essential character remained frustratingly underdeveloped. Other than Felicity, all of the other characters in this novel seemed strangely ... half-baked. In some cases, an essential aspect of their background will be casually mentioned (such as Thatcher's reasons for going to war), only to never be brought up again. In others, a character will show up halfway through the book with no introduction (Nanny Jamilla, Thatcher's mum), only to flip-flop between different poles (is Jamilla a help or a hindrance? Is Thatcher's mum a cold bitch or an affectionate parent?). And other characters are just one-note (Tally's a romantic twit, Pippin's an incredibly gullible and stupid romantic twit).

In Thatcher's particular case, he remained mostly an enigma. Why did he go to war under an assumed name in the first place? At first, the novel (and Thatcher himself) suggests he did so to escape the immense responsibilities of being a Duke's heir, and he wanted to make his own choices. This rather bland "I just want to be free" Princess Jasmine argument ran the risk of making him seem a) lazy, b) irresponsible, and c) selfish. However, halfway through the book, Thatcher mentions in an offhand fashion that he went to war to escape his creditors, and this reminder of his rakish nature makes him feel unworthy of Felicity, and unworthy of the perfectly-perfect Ducal image she harbours of Hollindrake. Hey! Creditors! Unworthiness! That's interesting! Unfortunately, this briefly-mentioned point is never explained or brought up again.

As well, part of my enjoyment of this novel was hampered by the research I'm currently doing on servants. I originally picked up this novel because my own project (The Duke of Snow and Apples) also involves a footman who's really a duke, and I wanted to see how an established author handled their particular spin on that idea. My recent descent into research made this novel's errors all the more glaring. For instance, Felicity continues to call her footman Mr Thatcher. Every article and book I've read of nineteenth century servants to date tells me that footmen were always called by their first names - last names were reserved for upstairs servants (butlers, valets, and stewards).

Secondly, Thatcher's livery - the book seemed to suggest it included little more than a jacket, and wasn't that important. Not so, according to my research. Livery was essential - not just for servants, but for their employers. Footmen were hired for their height and handsomeness, and their purpose in public was to advertise their employers' wealth. Livery for a servant in 1814 would have involved (at least) plush breeches, stockings (to show off their sexy calves), buckled pumps (that's right, they wore heels), fancy striped waistcoats, sharp jackets with shiny buttons, and either wigs or powdered hair. A poorly-dressed servant reflected poorly on the employer, and for someone as concerned with appearances as Felicity, I thought it unrealistic that she didn't take that amount of care into Thatcher's clothes - especially since she hired him for the sole reason of maintaining appearances!

Am I the only one who thought it might have been funny if Thatcher had been forced to powder his hair?

Lastly, while I now know this book is the third in a series (The Bachelor Chronicles), the references to previous books were very confusing. I've always been of the opinion that romance novels, even the ones in a series, should be able to stand alone because essentially they are the story about the hero and heroine falling in love. Maybe there are people that disagree, but for me, there were giant gaps in my understanding of the Langley girls' background, parentage (wait, their dad's dead? Wait - he's not dead??), and situation (why are they poor if they have an inheritance?) that prevented me from fully comprehending the story.

Overall, there was little to like about Love Letters From a Duke. However, I did like the concept - I liked the idea of a woman who took charge, and I liked how the Duke pursued her as a footman to win her on his own merits - and while this concept was imperfectly executed, to a certain extent it was mildly entertaining.

1 comment:

  1. You crack me up! The first part of this review had me lmao. It sounds like it would be a good premise but that it just wasn't layed out well. Too bad - it could have been good. :)