Review: ‘Me Before You’ & ‘After You’ by Jojo Moyes

Romance novels have happy endings. The hero and heroine kiss and/or marry and/or ride into the sunset. They live happily ever after, or in the genre shorthand, HEA. Having grown up reading romance novels, I used to believe love was the most important thing. But no major literary critic has ever treated romance as a serious genre. Happiness is a frivolous dream; reality is harsh and serious, like a Dickensian novel. As a skeptical Harper’s article puts it, “Bad Romance: One genre and a billion happy endings.”

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

Me Before You

If happy endings define crappy romance for critics, the Jojo Moyes’ now-a-major-motion-picture best-seller Me Before You poses an interesting case. The novel is about the relationship between Will Traynor–a former high-powered executive put in a wheelchair by a motorcycle accident–and his caregiver, Louisa Clark. The two do fall in love, but they don’t live happily ever after. Will, paralyzed from the neck down, is miserable, and even Louisa’s love can’t reconcile him to the limitations of his wheelchair. At the book’s conclusion, he goes to Dignitas, the assisted dying organization in Switzerland, and ends his life. as Louisa, grief-stricken, looks on.

Not the upbeat love-and-marriage ending you expect from a romance. And yet, putting the ending aside, Me Before You has almost all the characteristics of a romance novel. As with most heroes in romance novels, Will is wealthy, powerful, controlling, and emotionally distant. Even beyond the damaged hero, though, Me Before You functions as a romance because it’s about two people falling in love, and becoming more complete, and more themselves, while doing so.

Louisa, at the start of the novel, is a lower-middle-class woman afraid to dream beyond her small English town and bland, exercise-crazed boyfriend. Will, before his accident, was, in his own words, a self-centered “arse” and a callous womanizer; after his accident, he is consumed with bitterness. Over the course of the book, Will broadens Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to opera (very Pretty Woman), travel, and her own potential. Louisa, for her part, helps Will overcome his self-centeredness, his bitterness, and even his depression. “I watched you these six months becoming a whole different person,” he tells Louisa, “someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me.” Will wants to die not because he is sad, but because he won’t accept the limited life he has, and the prospect of things getting worse. He even asks Louisa to help him die. “Give me the ending I’m hoping for,” he says.

The novel is heartbreaking because the HEA is right there, tantalizingly within reach. As I read the novel, I saw how it could work and how they could be happy together. At Will’s ex’s wedding, they share a dance together, Louisa sitting on Will’s lap in his motorized wheelchair, spinning together on the dance floor. Louisa, formerly a timid underachiever, transforms into a compulsive researcher who organizes a complicated last-minute trip to a seaside resort with Will. “I have learned so much, so much about how to make this work,” she says, “so I can do that and just be with you.”

But that’s not enough. “This could be a good life,” Will says when Louisa declares her love. “But it’s not my life.”Louisa professes her love in true romance novel fashion, and the hero not only rejects her, he decides to commit suicide. A more thorough refutation of the romance novel tropes is hard to imagine.

But, at the same time, the tropes are fulfilled. Because Will stays with her–in Louisa’s memory of him, and in the changes she has made in herself: her determination to go to school, to leave her tiny hometown, and to live a larger life. At the book’s end, as she reads his last words to her in a Paris cafe he asked her to visit for him, the two are together on the page. Which is, after all, where all romance novel happy endings live.

After You

I assume the unfulfilled romance of Me Before You irked a lot of readers who pestered Ms. Moyes about Louisa’s fate. She wrote a sequel, After You. Louisa, struggling with her own grief, tries to move on with her life in London, in part through a new relationship with Sam, and in part through a new job prospect in New York.

After You is a more conventional romance than Me Before You–which is to say, it has a happy ending. But just as the painful end of Me Before You is shadowed by the almost-happy conclusion, the happiness of After You is reached only after multiple suggested tragedies.

The first of these comes right at the beginning of the novel. Louisa accidentally falls off her roof and for a moment thinks she is paralyzed, like Will before her. The parallel is very direct: Louisa’s accident is recounted in a foreword, just as Will’s is. And Louisa herself asks the paramedic if she paralyzed. After You explicitly toys with the idea that it is the same sad story as Me Before You–and explicitly rejects it.

After You offers other wrong turns and unhappy, or mixed, endings, though. In fact, in some ways, the whole novel is a failed HEA. “Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death,” Louisa bitterly tells her grief-support group. “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it?” After You is about the way that the first book’s version of a happy ending failed–not just in that Will died, but in the sense that Louisa didn’t grow and change as Will, and the book’s readers, thought she would. Will’s death was supposed to leave her with a bigger life; instead, it turns out, it diminished her.

The HEA for After You is complicated, too. This is especially the case because the most resonant relationship in the novel, in many ways, is not Louisa and Sam, but Louisa and Will’s troubled teenage daughter, Lily. Lily, deeply unhappy, is desperately in need of love. Louisa needs her in return, both for herself and in order to stay true to Will. But caring for Lily interferes with both Louisa’s job prospects and her new romance. Would caring for Lily be a sad ending? Or is being a foster mother a happy enough ending to count in a romance? “That’s life,” Sam tells her. “We don’t know what will happen. Which is why we have to take our chances while we can. And…I think this might be yours.”

What chance is Sam referring to there? Part of what’s delightful, and pointed, about Ms. Moyes’ novels is that you’re not sure until the very end. After You isn’t as ruthless as Me Before You, but Ms. Moyes is a master of the wavering possibilities of good enough and is always aware of the limits that sometimes make even good enough impossible. Her other books suggest that acute awareness of failure is linked to her sensitivity to class and working-class British life. Ms. Moyes book The One Plus One is a harrowing record of the drip-drip-drip slow-motion desperation of poverty, a chronicle of how life at the bottom of the class ladder is a constant reiteration of ‘you can do neither.’ Happiness teeters over a precipice, and when it’s snatched from the edge, it’s almost a physical relief, not least because unhappiness is such a vividly presented option.

In Me Before You, and in her other romances, Ms. Moyes layers defeat over victory. But in that, she’s not somehow subverting romance. That’s what romance is.

Romance novels always have sad endings before their happy endings. There’s always a moment, or a lot more than a moment, of despair—a recognition that things could go horribly wrong, and probably did, or would. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is notorious for providing two endings, only one of them “real,” and only one with an HEA for the couple at its center. That’s supposed to make it tricky literary fiction. But really it just makes it an unusually meta romance. Everybody has imagined Romeo and Juliet happy; everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice gets through the bit where Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy stands. And to read Me Before You is to imagine a shadow fiction next to the real fiction, where Will, instead of saying, “It’s not enough,” says, “Yes, it’s enough. I love you; let’s live.”

In fact, those happy endings and sad endings only have meaning because they exist together. The HEA (or even the happy for now) takes on moral and emotional force because it insists that happiness is deserved, in the full knowledge that often it isn’t possible. And those sad endings are heartbreaking because happiness is fully imagined, and sometimes attainable. Ms. Moyes’ novels, and romance novels in general, don’t gloss over despair, or pain, or sadness. Rather, they take happiness seriously precisely because they know heartbreak is always a possibility when you turn the page.

 

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Review: “Royal Affair” (Royals in Exile #2) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Affair

So despite not being a huge fan of the opener in this series, I decided to give Royal Affair a shot straight away. The premise was a bit cliched and, TBH, I wasn’t a huge fan of the story for about half of it. But I stuck wth it and I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. #AlwaysFinishABook

Princess Charlotte Sinclair has always been the wallflower. The traumatic death of her parents and the subsequent exile in North Carolina has left her socially awkward and desirous of wanting a normal life. But when journalist Brooks Walker exposes her family, instead of being outraged like the rest of her siblings, Charlotte is fascinated by his take-no-prisoners, brash style of journalism. When they meet at a charity ball, she propositions him to have an affair with her in exchange for access to her secrets.

Despite coming from an illustrious family, Brooks Walker carved a name out for himself by building a media empire based on honest journalism, no matter how many people it pissed off in the process. When the sweetest of the Sinclairs suggests they have an affair, he readily agrees. However, he soon finds himself overwhelmed by the passion they share and starts to care for Charlotte. When an old enemy of the royal family resurfaces and gives Brooks the biggest scoop of his career, he must decide where his loyalties lie.

Again, I have to reiterate that I did not like this book in the beginning. I thought Charlotte was too naive and Brooke was too much of a wolf. Also, I believed there wasn’t any building up to the affair itself. Ms. Valentine writes like the first chapter is the fifth and the readers are supposed to know things not even mentioned in the previous books in the series.

However, in the later half of the book, there is a lot of character development. The motivation behind the protagonists’ unnatural obsession with each other is explained. Secondary characters are introduced to humanize Brooks, who I still think was portrayed as too jaded to convincingly fall in love with the princess he was supposed to use a source. As usual, there is a flurry of shocking revelations about the Sinclair family. There is A LOT of sex throughout the story, but it really doesn’t add anything to the plot.

Thankfully, this time the banter, as well as the inner monologues, were hilarious and made me actually like the characters. The conflicts were still superficial and resolved too quickly and easily to be of any consequence. But when Brooks and Charlotte finally got together, it seemed largely believable. I was fascinated by the hints dropped about Theo’s and Imogen’s upcoming stories. Hopefully, the next books in the series will actually be great and not fizzle out into mediocrity like the first two.

Review: “Royal Scandal” (Royals in Exile #1) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Scandal

At 19, Crown Prince Colin St Claire–sorry, Sinclair–is forced to go into hiding in small-town America with his siblings after a violent uprising in his homeland results in the death of his parents. There he meets spunky Della Hughes, 17, who treats him with a candor he finds refreshing. So, obviously, he doesn’t tell her he’s royalty. Moreover, he lets her believe he is the father of his two youngest siblings. A decade passes and now Colin is taking steps to reclaim his family’s rightful place. For that, he is required to marry a woman of the Parliament’s choosing but he has someone else in mind.

Della Hughes has been in love with her best friend Colin for as long as she can remember. Practically a co-parent to his “boys” and a part of the Sinclair family, she feels taken for granted because Colin has shown no interest in her as a woman over the past ten years. Imagine her surprise when she finds out he’s a prince and needs her to marry him to secure a real-life throne for his siblings.

Their deep friendship and love for each other (which is blindingly obvious to the rest of the world but not to them) makes them enter into a marriage of convenience, which quickly turns into a passionate union. However, as Colin and Della open up their hearts to each other, both are hiding secrets from the other which they think can destroy their relationship. Set against the backdrop of a litany of shocking revelations about the St Claire family and kingdom, this is, first, a story of how the St Claire family come to terms with their place in the world and then, a modern fairytale romance.

The book has a very contemporary feel to it, with numerous references to Beauty and the Beast and Stranger Things. Colin and Della are fairly progressive protagonists. They do, however, overthink the hell out of their problems, creating barriers where none were necessary on their path to finding true love. The book was unexpectedly sexy and it was slightly disconcerting (but not unenjoyable :P) to read graphic scenes when there was so much family drama in the air. Since Royal Scandal is the opening book in a series, Ms. Valentine laid the ground for a lot of subplots that would be developed in the upcoming stories. However, they sometimes took away from the centrality of Colin and Della’s romance.

Overall, Royal Scandal was an entertaining, if slightly messy, take on a modern fairytale romance. I am excited to see what lies in store for the rest of the St Claire family.

Review: “Do You Want to Start A Scandal?” (Castles Ever After #4) (Spindle Cove #5) by Tessa Dare

do-you-want-to-start-a-scandal

Tessa Dare has a special place in my heart. Her book, Romancing The Duke, was the novel that got me back to reading historical romances. Its sequel, Say Yes to the Marquess, gave me one of my favourite couples. And When A Scot Ties the Knot, while not as good as the first two, was an enjoyable read I loved because it was right in the middle of my Outlander phase. Do You Want to Start A Scandal is a crossover between Ms Dare’s Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series, bringing together Rafe’s brother, Piers Brandon, and Charlotte, the last unmarried Highwood sister.

andy-confetti

It starts with the best of intentions. Charlotte Highwood has been labeled the “Desperate Debutante” by the tabloids because of her Mrs Bennet-on-PCP mother who literally keeps flinging her at eligible suitors. At a house party to convince her friend Delia Parkhurst’s parents to permit them to go to Europe before they both become well-married, bored-out-of-their-brains ladies of the ton, Charlotte sneaks into the library to “save” Piers by warning him to stay out of her way. However, her plans go up in flames when she and Lord Granville have to hide behind a curtain in a ‘compromising position’ so as to not be discovered by another couple who enter the room to have a tryst on the desk. Outed by their hosts’ ghoulish son to her overeager mother, Charlotte ends up exactly where she didn’t want to be: forced into a betrothal with a man she doesn’t love.

“I can’t agree to a convenient arrangement, my lord. Your devotion to duty may be admirable, but ‘lie back and think of England’ simply isn’t for me.”

His voice became low and dark. “I cannot promise you everything you might wish, but I promise you this: When I take you to bed, you will not be thinking of England.”

Piers Brandon had hoped to keep a low profile at the house party. A well-traveled diplomat (read: spy, obviously), he did not expect to be distracted from his mission by an outspoken chit. Having spent his life controlling his surroundings to forget his family’s troubled past, the last thing he wanted was any emotional entanglement. And that is exactly what Miss Highwood will be. However, Piers cannot seem to stop himself from continually seeking out Charlotte or putting them in situations that could further ruin her reputation. The easiest thing to do would be to find out who started the whole fiasco and make them fess up. But Piers isn’t so sure he can walk away from the golden-haired beauty or imagine a life without her laughter and charming ways.

“What’s your plan…?” she whispered. “Do you mean to kiss me so long and so hard that I’ll forget your identity?”
“No.” His hand slid to the back of her head, tangling in her hair–so tightly she gasped. “I mean to kiss you so long and so hard that you’ll forget yours.”

Since the hero’s a spy, the story has the requisite lock-picking, dangling from windows, mysterious fires being set, poison, and even more mystery solving. Actually, most of that is done by Charlotte, not Piers, which drives him up a wall. Piers may be the worldly one, but Charlotte has so much more emotional maturity. She knows what she wants for her future. She doesn’t want to settle; not for a loveless marriage, even if it is with a man above her station. And as she grows to care for Piers, she wants more for him as well.

She unsettled him; he anchored her. Together, they could be more than they were apart.

Their romance is so lovely and sensual. I loved every single thing about it. It builds slowly and believably while they are embroiled in the search for the couple actually in the library having sex. The more time they spend together the more they want each other. The more they want each other, the deeper they fall in love. Piers is sigh-worthy, Charlotte is so fierce and kind and loving. Together they are sure to have fans of this genre squealing in excitement and swooning from the love overload.

For all the fun and froth, though, there are some very well-realised moments of deeper emotion in the story.  I particularly enjoyed the scene when Charlotte comes to a fuller appreciation of what her mother’s life has been, which is poignant and nicely understated.

Although the book fits into two different series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read either of those in order to enjoy it as it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Charming, sexy, and often laugh-out-loud funny – seriously, I’ll never think of perfume or look at an aubergine in quite the same way again! – Do You Want to Start a Scandal? is just the ticket if you’re looking for a well-written, feel-good read.

Review: “Say Yes to the Marquess” (Castles Ever After #2) by Tessa Dare

Say Yes to the Marquess

A couple of things before I write another long and super-gushy review. First, that’s one of the sexiest covers I’ve seen in a Regency romance. Second, I have taken up a boatload of random assignments so I will not have any time to post new reviews for at least a month. I hope you guys are still around when I return. 🙂

In Say Yes to the Marquess, Clio Whitmore thought she got her Happily Ever After at the tender age of 17. Acting upon the wishes of their respective families, she became affianced to the heir of the Granville fortune, Lord Piers Brandon. Eight years later with no wedding in sight, however, Clio’s proposal is beginning to seem less like a dream and more like an interminable nightmare. In the ensuing years, Clio has become an object of public ridicule and dubbed ‘Miss Wait-More’ by her peers, who take delight in making wagers as to when, or more precisely if, her long-awaited nuptials will occur. Determined to salvage her good name and wait no longer, Clio seeks a dissolution of the engagement. There’s only one problem.

While the death of her uncle and the castle that was bequeathed to her provide Clio with the sense of purpose and independence she has always sought, she will need the support of Piers’ younger brother, Rafe, to dissolve the marriage. Known more simply as ‘The Devil’s Own’, Lord Rafe Brandon’s talent in the boxing ring is rivalled only by his sexual prowess in the bedroom. Scheduled for a re-match against his greatest opponent, Jack Dubose, upon which both his reputation and England’s largest purse are at stake, Rafe will need the proper rest, nourishment and focus in order to succeed. What he doesn’t need, however, are distractions and, for Rafe, there is no greater distraction than Miss Clio Whitmore herself. The perfect embodiment of sweetness, decorum, and gentility, Clio represents everything Rafe detests about the polite society he has always eschewed and has fought to dismantle since the age of twenty-one.

As usual, his thoughts were three paces ahead of his judgement. The image erupted in his mind’s eye, as unbidden as it was vivid. Clio, breathless. Naked. Under him. Stripped of all her good manners and inhibitions. Begging him to learn her every secret shade of pink.
Rafe blinked hard. Then he took that mental image and filed it away under Pleasant-Sounding Impossibilities. Right between ‘flying carriage’ and ‘beer fountain’.

So, when Clio arrives and informs Rafe that she intends to break off her engagement to his brother and requires his signature and permission to do so, Rafe is understandably shocked and upset. After all, without the marriage to entice him home, Piers will have no reason to return to England, and Rafe will be left to act as Marquess in his brother’s stead, a prospect he absolutely can’t abide. Rafe vows to salvage Clio and Piers’ relationship, even if it means planning the wedding himself, and will use everything at his disposal to do so, including exquisite displays of flowers, instrumentalists, (mounds of SEXY, SEXY) cake, and even an elderly bulldog, to do so. As their week together draws to a close, however, which two will be the ones saying “I do”?

Barely controlled anger radiated from him. “Not tonight. When I’m around, you don’t wait out dances. You don’t go hungry. And you sure as hell don’t come at the end of any line.

Good heavens. It was a struggle not to swoon all over again.

Here, I would like to slightly digress and say that I am ecstatic at having found a new favourite romance author. A month ago I reviewed Ms. Dare’s first book in the Castles Ever After series, Romancing the Duke, and I instantly became a fan. In Say Yes to the Marquess, I found a rare second book that is so much better than the first, a feat I didn’t think was possible. There’s something to be said for a book that simply makes you feel good. A book that will make you smile until your cheeks ache. A book that will make you laugh aloud unashamedly, even in the most crowded of rooms. A book that you seek out after a long day at work or when curled up in bed, nursing cramps that just won’t go away. No-one – and I mean absolutely n0-one – writes these sort of books better than Tessa Dare. With her now-trademark combination of wit, humour, sensuality and female empowerment, Ms Dare proves that you can, in fact, have your cake and eat it too in this new, irresistible friends-to-lovers romance that readers won’t be able to resist devouring in a single sitting.

He silenced her objection, rubbing his thumb up and down her arm. God, she was soft there. “He will. Make those wedding plans, Clio. Because when he sees you again for the first time it’s going to come as a blow to the ribs, that wanting. He’s going to want to see you in that grand, lacy gown, with little blossoms strewn in your hair. He’s going to want to watch you walk down that aisle, feeling his chest swell closer to bursting from pride with every step you take. And most of all, he’ll want to stand before God, your friends and family, and all of London society – just to tell them you’re his. His and no one else’s.”

As with Romancing the Duke, I was faced with an overwhelming abundance of choice when it came time to choose a few quotes to include in my review. Ms. Dare’s prose positively sparkles and never fails to delight with a bewitching combination of humour and eroticism that is all the author’s own. The dialogue is sharp and clever and moves the pace along at such a fast clip as to almost ensure that you will devour this novel in a single sitting. The secondary characters are equally delightful. From Piers’ portly, aged bulldog, Ellingworth, to Rafe’s enterprising friend and prizefight organizer, ‘Bruno Aberforth Montague Esquire’, aka Bruiser, Dare’s supporting cast are just as charming as ever and threaten to steal every scene they are in, no more so than Clio’s youngest sister, Phoebe. While it’s unclear whether or not the author intended for Phoebe’s behaviour to be indicative of her placement on the autism spectrum, Phoebe’s strict adherence to rationality, her genius, ingenuity and generosity of spirit made her a thoroughly loveable character and one whose own story I would love to delve more deeply into, given the opportunity. One can only hope that Ms. Dare intends to dedicate an entire novel to this character who is sure to steal the hearts and minds of many.

Then there’s my secret weapon.” With a glance in either direction, he pulled out a small brass object from his pocket. “Picked up this little beauty in a pawnbroker’s.
Rafe looked at it. “A quizzing glass. Really.
I’m telling you, these things scream upper crust. You should get one, Rafe. No, I mean it. Someone talks over your head? Quizzing glass. Someone asks a question you can’t answer? Quizzing glass.
“You honestly think a stupid monocle is all you need to blend in with the aristocracy?”
Bruiser raised the quizzing glass and peered at Rafe through the lens. Solemnly.
The idiot might be onto something.

I have this palpable, bittersweet ache knowing I won’t be reading or posting anything for a short while now. I am just thankful I am taking a break after reading a Tessa Dare novel. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the hero and heroine achieve their hard-won happily ever after but it’s immensely difficult to bid goodbye to the enchanting worlds Ms. Dare creates and the pure, unadulterated joy that she infuses into each and every word. With each new book, she reminds me why her novels are among my new favourites in this or any genre. Her effervescent wit, her searing sensuality, and her charming, three-dimensional characters never fail to nestle themselves firmly inside my heart and Say Yes To The Marquess is no exception. An irresistible combination of heart, heat, and hilarity, Ms. Dare’s latest is a solid second instalment in the Castles Ever After series and a must-read for those familiar with or entirely new to this genre and/or this series.

Review: “Romancing the Duke” (Castles Ever After #1) by Tessa Dare

Romancing the Duke

[I KNOW THE REVIEW IS TOO LONG. SORRY NOT SORRY. I JUST LOVED THIS BOOK A LOT]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if one is reading a historical romance, one must have a heroine to root for, a hero to swoon for, know this story may have a happy ending, and that’s the only predictability you’re going to have. Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke not only meets these expectations but exceeds them.

Let me begin by saying that I really did not plan on reading this book. Most of the books I’ve read in 2016 have been sappy romances and I had no intention of adding another to the list so soon. Except I was making my friend watch Mean Girls via Skype (On a Wednesday, wearing pink :P) and sorting my e-books to check if they were working on my new reader and as I read out the first paragraph as a joke, I had this overwhelming urge to find out what happened next. Moments later, with my movie paused and my friend summarily dismissed, I was hopelessly in love with this book.

As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.

Ugly duckling turned swan?
Abducted by handsome highwayman?
Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and…Heh.

Unfortunately, as a now plain, unmarried twenty-six-year-old woman who has never even been kissed, her life seems more akin to a comic tragedy than to the romantic fairytales she once dreamt about as a little girl. Penniless, parentless and now homeless following the sudden and untimely loss of her father to apoplexy (of all things), Izzy scarcely has two shillings to rub together and finds herself in a desperate situation. That is until she receives an unexpected letter informing her that she has been left a bequest by her father’s patron, the late Earl of Lynford. Her inheritance? Gostley Castle in the middle of ‘Nowhere, Northumberland’, once the seat of the Rothbury Dukedom.

When she arrives at her new home, however, where she once expected turrets and ramparts, parapets and parks, Izzy is instead greeted with something far more magnificent and unexpected: The imposing figure of Ransom William Dacre Vane, the eleventh Duke of Rothbury, whose dark beauty stops Izzy dead in her tracks, despite the scar that mars the right side of his face.

There were things in nature that took their beauty from delicate structure and intricate symmetry. Flowers. Seashells. Butterfly wings. And then there were things that were beautiful for their wild power and their refusal to be tamed. Snowcapped mountains. Churning thunderclouds. Shaggy, sharp-toothed lions.
The man silhouetted before her? He belonged, quite solidly, in the latter category.
So did the wolf sitting at his heel.
It couldn’t be a wolf, she told herself. It had to be some sort of dog. Wolves had long been hunted to extinction. The last one in England died ages ago.
But then…she would have thought they’d stopped making men like this, too.

But when Ransom refuses to give up possession of his ancestral home, the two find themselves in an untenable stalemate, neither willing to concede defeat or relinquish a property that means the world to them, despite a troubling abundance of bats and an absence of windows.

“Well,” Izzy ventured to remark, some minutes into the tense silence Lord Archer had left behind, “this is an awkward situation.”
“Awkward?” The duke paced the floor, swinging his arms at his sides. Then he stopped in his tracks and said it again. “Awkward.”
The word rang through the great hall, bouncing off the ceiling vaults.
Izzy just stood there. Awkwardly.
“Adolescence,” he said, “is awkward. Attending a past lover’s wedding is awkward. Making love on horseback is awkward.”
She was in agreement, so far as the first part. She’d have to take his word on it when it came to the second and third.

Ransom quickly becomes determined to figure out how they found themselves in their current predicament and enlists Izzy’s help by employing her as his secretary. Tasked with getting to the bottom of Ransom’s long-neglected mountain of correspondence, Izzy and Ransom form an unlikely partnership and, along with the help of the local vicar’s kind-hearted daughter and a band of merry Moranglians, embark on a mission to discover the truth, all while trying desperately not to fall in love with one another. After all, the course of true love never did run smooth.

The titular character in England’s nationally-recognized and beloved series of stories, The Goodnight Tales, Isolde ‘Izzy’ Ophelia Goodnight (I just love saying the name) is a woman who feels she owes as much to the public as she does to herself. In spite of the popularity of these tales of gallant knights and chivalrous love, however, Izzy and her father have spent the majority of their lives in relative poverty, often relying on bizarre gifts and the support of their eclectic group of fans in order to get by. Consequently, out of necessity Izzy was forced long ago to learn to temper her expectations and quickly adapt to almost any situation, no matter how challenging the circumstances. This tenacity and determination in the face of often unimaginable opposition were one of the (many) things that drew me to Ms Dare’s  protagonist.

I’ve always tried to make the best of what life gave me. When I was a girl, I longed for a kitten. Instead, I got a weasel. Not the pet I wanted but I’ve done my best to love Snowdrop just the same… Since my father died, I’ve been desperate for a place to call home. The humblest cottage would do. Instead, I’ve inherited a haunted, infested castle in Nowhere, Northumberland. Not the home I wanted, but I’m determined to make it a home.

Unfortunately, no amount of resolve will help Izzy conquer her greatest challenge of all: Her preoccupation with the public’s perception and the pressure to meet their expectations. Known more simply as ‘Little Izzy Goodnight’ to the adoring and dedicated fans of the series, Izzy is continually infantilized and feels pressured to subordinate her own desires so as not to shatter the carefully crafted illusion of the innocent child in these cherished stories. With Ransom, however, who has never read The Goodnight Tales and is wholly unfamiliar with the mythos surrounding Izzy’s fictional, childhood counterpart, Izzy is finally granted a freedom previously unknown to her.

Unencumbered by the preconceptions and expectations of others, Izzy is able, for the first time, to explore her true wants and desires without fear of reprisal or tarnishing her father’s legacy. These scenes in which Izzy was able to vocalize what she wanted most were both endearing and immensely empowering. Despite the social mores of the time period in which this novel is set, in Izzy, Ms Dare has crafted a feminist icon who makes the best of any situation and is unafraid to flout conventional wisdom and do what is best for her, regardless of the consequences.

“This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

Now, as much as I love reading about a feisty heroine, for a romance novel to really work for me, it’s the hero’s characterisation that makes or breaks the book. Right from the start, Ransom’s attracted to Izzy, to her honesty and spirit; and – not least – to the feel of her body and the scent of her skin. As we come to know more of him, we discover that Ransom had a loveless childhood (as so many heroes in historical romance seem to do!) and that, as an adult, he made a career of pushing people away and alienating them, so that even when he was in possession of all his physical senses, he was never well-liked or popular – despite his being inordinately handsome and very rich. And now he feels he has nothing to offer. He’s blind, scarred, even more of a grump than he was before, and the last thing he wants is to feel pitied.

Now all of that sounds completely normal, right? We’ve read and loved that story before — the poor penniless heroine who finally has caught a break, almost, but now has to deal with this big, handsome, intimidating man who frequently behaves as if he doesn’t know if he wants to break furniture or ravish her. But Ms. Dare is not satisfied with normal, and she’s really quite brilliant at adding “writer jokes” that translate wonderfully to the reader. I wasn’t able to stop actually laughing out loud as I met the Moranglian society, wondered who the real Izzy Goodnight really is, and gasp, as I realized I’d been Jedi’d in a 19th century England setting.

Romancing The Duke posed one of the best sort of challenges a book blogger can ever hope to encounter while reading and reviewing a book. Ms Dare’s writing is so enchanting, so lovely, and so profoundly funny, that I was faced with the almost impossible task of having to select only a handful of quotations to highlight in this review when in truth I would have loved nothing more than to compose a document made up of nothing but. The sheer abundance of choice was overwhelming, thanks in large part to the author’s ability to provide her readers with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to quotable, memorable dialogue and prose. There’s an effervescent wit to the author’s writing that makes her work nothing short of an absolute joy to read.

It started to rain. Fat, heavy drops of summer rain – the kind that always struck her as vaguely lewd and debauched. Little potbellied drunkards, those summer raindrops, chortling on their way to earth and crashing open with glee.

Putting this aside for a moment, perhaps what I found most interesting (and inspiring) about Romancing The Duke was not the wonderful humour but rather the manner in which Ms Dare skillfully incorporates recognizable fairytale tropes throughout the course of the narrative that perfectly paralleled The Goodnight Tales around which Izzy’s life has always centered. There’s something both fanciful and familiar about the narrative arc of Romancing The Duke that allowed me to instantly respond to it. Yet for all the familiarity of Izzy and Ransom’s story, and the nostalgia it can’t help but evoke for those of us familiar with this sort of story from our own childhood, Ms Dare still manages to put a unique twist on what might otherwise have proven a familiar formula for the ‘beauty and the beast’ archetype.

Admittedly, there were a handful of historical anachronisms scattered throughout the text, which were evident in both the character’s dialogue as well as in their thoughts and action, but none so serious that they in any way detracted from my enjoyment of the story. Frankly, strict historical accuracy is not of great importance when it comes to my enjoyment of this particular genre. That said, I do understand that this can be a sticking point for some readers, and thought it bore mentioning.

Doubt not the beauty of this novel’s prose, the quickness of the author’s wit, or the romance and passion that blossoms between the two lead characters. Doubt not that you will be kept awake until 3:00am, desperate to find out what happens next and unable to put down the book until you do so. In short? Doubt not that Romancing The Duke will provide one of the best and most enjoyable reading experiences you’ll have all year. Now, I insist that you begin reading this novel post-haste, lest I be forced to ‘release the ermine’ on you! Don’t know what I’m talking about? Pick up Romancing The Duke today and you soon will. I promise that you won’t regret it!