Sunday, March 01, 2009

"The Hazards of Hunting a Duke," by Julia London

Alternate Title: Mawwage Bwings Uth Togethah

The Chick: Ava Fairchild. When her mother dies suddenly, her stepfather flies off to France to visit his mistress - with Mommy Dearest's fortune, and a promise to marry his meddlesome stepdaughters (and step-niece Greer) to the first men who ask him when he returns. So when Lord Middleton asks for her hand, Ava accepts, even though she doesn't know him very well. With her wifely allowance she should be able to keep her sister and cousin from being bartered off, and Middleton seems dashing enough.
The Rub: Although both she and Middleton entered into marriage for practical reasons, she finds herself falling in love with him. But Middleton still wants to keep the marriage practical - and, apparently, keep a mistress on the side.
Dream Casting: Becoming Jane's Anna Maxwell Martin.

The Dude: Jared Broderick, Marquis Middleton. When his strict father, Duke Redford, orders Jared to marry to perpetuate the ducal line, Jared decides to woo Ava Fairchild. She comes from a good enough family, is quite lovely, and most of all - isn't his father's choice.
The Rub: Jared married only to keep his father off his back - he doesn't actually want his life to change or anything. Too bad his heart (and his wife) feel differently.
Dream Casting: Rupert Penry-Jones.

The Plot:

Greedy Stepdad: Sorry your mom's dead, girls, but I have to run.

Ava, Phoebe, Greer: But what about our mom's fortune?

Greedy Stepdad: Take a chill pill! I'll get you married when I get back, then you won't need it!

Ava: Oh no you won't!

Jared: Marry me?

Ava: Oh yes I will!

Jared and Ava: *married*

Ava: Isn't this wonderful, Jared?

Jared: Marriage, responsibilities, mortgage payments, growing up, AAAAAUGH! *angst attack*

Miranda, Jared's ex-mistress: Hey, Big J. What, did I arrive at a comically inopportune moment to sow discord between you and your wife? My bad!

Ava: ... *glare*

Jared: Yeah, Miranda! *glare*

Ava: I'm done, Jared! *several realistic and understandable reasons*

Jared: But I love you, now! And I brought diamonds!

Ava: Oh, okay then.

Jared: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Responsibility-Shirking Man-Boy

1 Greedy Stepfather

1 Slutty Maid

1 Romantically Lacklustre (but still relatively harmless) Rival

Several Big Misunderstandings

1 Evil Whore Mistress

1 Secret Baby

1 Very Bad (but Layered and Realistically Drawn!) Parent

1 Inconveniently Dead Mother

The Word: Something needs to be done about the titles of romance novels and series. Really. They set up expectations and assumptions that are in very many cases not true to the novel I'm actually reading. Let's take Julia London's The Hazards of Hunting a Duke, the first in a series called The Desperate Debutantes. I bought this novel at a second-hand bookstore, and I was honestly expecting it to be light and fluffy and maybe a little stupid, with a story about a larger-than-life bad-boy Marquis with the physique of bodybuilder falls for the feisty wench built like Tinkerbell who ignores all the laws of society and likes to wear pants and is just so cute when she ignores all of his meathead Alpha Male commands.

Boy, was I wrong.

Ava Fairchild loves to flirt and wear beautiful gowns and attend balls with her shyer sister Phoebe and cousin Greer. While she's received offers, she's remained unattached - after all, her mother possesses a sizable fortune of her own, so there's no rush. When her shoe breaks one day at a ball, she refuses a dance with Lord Middleton - a famous rake. Lord Middleton, for reasons he can't understand, is surprisingly hurt by this rejection, and when she enters his carriage accidentally at the ball's end, he punishes her with a little "harmless flirtation" (one of my few problems with this novel involves the categorization of this event - taking a woman's breast out of her dress and putting your mouth on it isn't "harmless flirtation" even by modern standards).

However, more than Ava's sexuality is changed that night: her mother perishes suddenly of a stroke, leaving her fortune in the hands of Ava's weaselly stepfather. Stepdaddy immediately claims all the money for himself, leaving Ava, Phoebe, and Greer without a penny for themselves - not even for servants. His reasoning for this stinginess is twofold: first, they won't need to socialize during the traditional year of mourning for their mother anyway. Secondly, he soon informs them, once he returns from partying in Paris with his mistress on his dead wife's tab, he plans to marry them off to the fastest and highest bidder.

One year later, the three girls' mourning period is almost up, and Stepdad is bound to return from Paris in a month. Ava, being the oldest, decides to bite the bullet and take it upon herself to marry someone rich, convenient, and right away - while she's always wished she could marry for love, if she marries now, she'll be able to support Phoebe and Greer so that they, at least, might have the luxury of waiting for the right man. Her eyes land on none other than Lord Middleton.

Conveniently enough, Jared, Lord Middleton, is looking for exactly the same thing. His cold, autocratic father has been pressuring him to marry for years, and, his patience wearing thin, has finally threatened to expose Jared's most embarassing secret if he doesn't buck up and perform his marrying and heir-begetting duties. However, his father's ideal pick (Lady Elizabeth Robertson) bores Jared to tears. He'd rather marry anyone than Lady Elizabeth. Truth be told, he'd rather marry nobody but his father's laid the hammer down. He decides on Ava - she's pretty, well-bred, and if the rumours are true, penniless and desperate.

However, their problems don't end once Ava and Jared are wed. Much like that other Julia (of the Quinn family), Julia London finds plenty of conflict to inflict on the characters after the vows are made. Ava and Jared's main problem stems from Jared's distance.

Jared's angst, on the surface, appears quite whiny and and childish but goes much deeper than that. Raised in a cold and mostly uncaring household where the duties of nobility were constantly impressed upon him, the words duty and obligation and tradition were forced down his throat so many times he rejects those concepts now out of habit. He grew up bent on determining the course of his own life, refusing to allow anyone else to inflict changes upon his well-ordered lifestyle, and it's this determination that drives a wedge between him and Ava.

Jared doesn't mind being married to Ava - he quickly realizes he rather enjoys it. However, the fact that he was forced (through his father's blackmail) to marry rankles and provokes him to keep Ava and the stirring feelings she creates at a distance. He performs his marital duties with her, but then he keeps her on his estate while he goes off on business, refusing to allow his life to change, to allow anyone other than himself to change it. Ava realizes her love for him relatively quickly after their marriage, and tries many (and frequently hilarious) methods for getting his attention, but whenever she tries to express her love and gain his in return he balks, and shakily refers to their original terms of marriage (the ones he controlled, naturally), both frightened and angered that she continues to expect more from him. His determination to be obligated to no one prevents him from offering more than what was strictly proscribed from the beginning.

This is another one of those rare romances where I enjoyed the heroine more than the hero. I related to and enjoyed reading about Ava. She enters into a marriage of convenience with a man she doesn't know very well, but once she realizes she loves him, she goes after him with every trick she has to make him hers, and hers only.

Ava, like Jared, is frequently bombarded with instructions on how to behave in society (from her mother's friend Lady Pernam and Jared's housekeeper Mrs Hilliers, for example), as well as what to expect from it. Her desire to be the loved by Jared (and to be the only one loved by Jared) is met with disdain or disbelief from others - even her own sister Phoebe thinks her expectations are unrealistic. But Ava doesn't care one wit for the expectations of a society marriage - she'll take what she wants by any means necessary, and I admired her for it, and how she managed to achieve it without becoming an anachronistic, shrill, or unreasonable character.

But, hoo boy, does she have to work for it. Jared and Ava's arguments are real and painful, based on well-written and realistically motivated fears and desires, and the injuries inflicted by those thorny knots of misunderstanding aren't easily healed. Lesser romances often have conflicts based on trifling problems, secrets, or contrived misunderstandings that, more often than not, are instantaneously and permanently healed by a big reveal at the ending. Not so here - the closest thing this novel has to a Big Misunderstanding comes with the character of Miranda, Jared's ex-mistress.

While Jared broke it off with Miranda before he married, Ava doesn't realize this. Throughout the novel she's plagued with the suspicion that Jared is cheating on her with Miranda, but Julia London provides us with a realistic misunderstanding that doesn't compromise the heroine's intelligence or provide an easy answer. Ava is confronted on all sides by reasons to believe Jared's adultery - not only by frequent reminders of society's tolerance of mistresses, but by Jared's own self-imposed distance and the remarks of the gossip papers. Jared only contributes to her suspicions, albeit unwittingly, with his repeated refusals to communicate for fear of becoming emotionally entangled. Ava's fears are well-founded and add a realistic amount of darkness to her struggles with Jared.

However, the more I empathized with Ava and her struggles, the less I understood Jared. By the later half of the novel, Jared and Ava's arguments are simple repetitions (Ava: "I love you!" Jared: "That wasn't part of the deal!"), in every instance ending with Jared's surprise that Ava expects more from their relationship. Julia London provides an excellent foundation for Jared's relunctance to relinquish control of his life, but his inability to perceive Ava's dissatisfaction - even after they repeatedly argue about it - stretches belief. Also, the novel hints that Jared feels unable to love anyone thanks to a bad experience in his past, but this element of his character and backstory is never satisfactorily explained. More than anything, Jared's character needs proper development and motivation since his is the character inflicting the most misery, unwitting or no.

The fact that Jared's character is less-than-completely developed is rather odd, considering how detailed and coloured even the secondary and tertiary characters in this novel are, particularly Jared's father, Duke Redford. He doesn't have a big part to play in this story, so London could have easily made him a cold, unfeeling Very Bad Parent. Instead she occasionally pushes the curtain aside to reveal a man trying to express his love and pride in his son, who nevertheless fails because he tries to do so within the bounds of strict societal rules that his son rejects. Even in a tiny villain role, the father's surprisingly three-dimensional portrayal provides an excellent thematic parallel between him and Jared's attempt to treat his wife in a rigidly traditional manner - demonstrating the bleak endpoint where Jared will end up if he doesn't change his ways.

This novel surprised and impressed me - what appeared, at first glance, to be a frothy and silly novel turned into a complex and developed tale about how responsibility, duty, and obligation all have a role to play in one's life - even if they shouldn't be all that life is. I'll definitely be looking for more Julia London books in the future. Hopefully, they'll get better titles.


  1. Anonymous9:06 AM

    Great review. I was also surprised by how different the book was from the title. Hopefully there are other books by the author with better titles.

    This was my favorite part:

    "However, their problems don't end once Ava and Jared are wed. Much like that other Julia (of the Quinn family), Julia London finds plenty of conflict to inflict on the characters after the vows are made."

    LOL loved it

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  2. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Thanks for the review. It sounds like a good book.

  3. Antonia --> I've been looking up the other books as well. While they haven't been reviewed as well (and the size of my TBR pile has made me refrain from buying any romances until RWA Nationals), I'll definitely be seeing if my library carries them.

    Laura --> It really surprised me - some of the protagonists' fights were painful, to the point where I almost suspected the HEA.