[We have a newish column wherein our newest contributor Trisha reviews romance novels to see whether they have any broader cultural, feminist, or sexual import. Enjoy! -ed]
Once upon a time, a “devastatingly handsome man with an impressive scar” was forced to cohabitate in a ramshackle, bat-ridden castle with a plucky but down-on-her-luck heiress. It’s a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme. There was also a weasel and some men dressed up pretending to be knights. And so, as you can surely imagine, the man and woman lived happily ever after (as do the weasel and some of the knights, so a nice little story for everyone involved).
Type: Historical romance
The couple: Ransom Vane, Duke of Rothbury who is scarred both emotionally and physically (because subtext) by recent mysterious and dramatic events; and Isolde “Izzy” Goodnight, the only daughter of a famous and recently deceased children’s storyteller. With no inheritance from her father, Izzy turns to the rundown castle she has seemingly inherited. Incidentally, the names “Ransom Vane” and “Isolde Goodnight” put all other literary names to shame.
Tropes: Hero/heroine in circumstantial conflict and begrudgingly stuck together, family issues, wounded hero, damsel in distress (although in fairness, the duke is in pretty significant distress as well)
The story: The Duke of Rothbury is shocked to find that his shitty dilapidated castle, which is essential to his life as a cranky shut-in, has been willed to a spirited young woman characterized by her wild hair, sexual innocence, and fierce ability to fend for herself. He insists he never sold the castle, but she has nowhere else to take herself and her pet weasel, so they’re forced to live together while they sort out who has double-crossed whom and what to do about it. Luckily, they have the help of the duke’s manservant and Izzy’s father’s adoring fans. Because you know what they’re always saying about the 1800’s: they were full of weasels and rabid fans of children’s stories.
How’s the sex? Boy, there are a lot of clothes in historical times. But despite the need to strip through all of the many layers of archaic clothing, author Tessa Dare does a nice job of working up to the sex in the book. Izzy is exceptionally innocent, but she’s also incredibly bored with her own virginity. The story realistically builds to her deflowering, while also not waiting too long to cut to the chase. (It’s the 19th century, you guys – I’m allowed to call it “deflowering.” In fact, I specifically read this book so I could use the term “deflowering.”)
Is this book for you? Being more of a contemporary romance reader, this was my first foray into the historical “dukes/duchesses/petticoats/rundown castle full of bats” historical genre. I’m not opposed to castles or corsets (well, I’m a little anti-corset), but I sort of assumed that a lack of indoor plumbing would suck the romance right out of any story.
As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. The setting – both in terms of the time period and the castle itself – is important, but it doesn’t overtake the story. If it weren’t for the carriages, use of the word “vile,” and the bats – I was a little traumatized by the bats – the book wouldn’t be all that different from a contemporary romance.
In fact, Dare struck me as a particularly impressive romance author. Romance writers of all subgenres walk a tricky line. Many readers come to the genre for the easily digestible happily-ever-after nature of the books, but if the story is too pat, we feel a little cheated. So authors are constantly asked to do something different and interesting, as long as they stay within the carefully drawn and agreed upon lines of the genre. Few authors do it very well, but after reading this book, I’d bet Tessa Dare is one of them. Dare manages to keep the book engaging even as the reader knows the story will end happily ever after. She does it with witty dialogue, characters with chemistry, and a legitimately funny subplot involving the fervent fans of Izzy’s father’s stories. The storyline with the book admirers goes off the rails a bit near the end and takes the climactic scene to a place that’s just a little too silly, but for most of the story it adds a nice dose of levity.
Even if the end of the story slightly misses the mark trying to balance the ridiculous and the romantic, the book is anchored by the strength of the characters and relationships. Izzy’s combination of determined-survivor and inadvertent-innocent works well, and Ransom is practically Austenian in his balance of jerk and romantic hero. Dare does a particularly nice job with Abigail, the straight-laced local vicar’s daughter who is charmingly devoted to Izzy. As much as I like a smart, sarcastic best friend, it’s nice once in awhile to have a more naïve goody two-shoes in that role.
Conclusion: Romancing the Duke is a fun romantic comedy fairytale that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s not exactly historically accurate or particularly deep, but if this book took the place of Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations in the literary canon, we’d probably have a lot more high schoolers passing their historical fiction classes. Something to consider, educators of America. Something to consider.