Friday, March 4, 2011

The Shy Duchess (book) by Amanda McCabe

This post has several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Synopsis:

Lady Emily Carroll is a blond, green-eyed beauty who should have more suitors than she knows what to do with - unfortunately, she's so shy that most of the eligible men are convinced she's not interested, so she's been dubbed the "Ice Princess." The only person who appears even the slightest bit interested seems somehow "off" to Emily. She doesn't want to have to marry him, but she might not have much of a choice.

Emily may not have many suitors, but there is one person she finds herself interested in: Nicholas, Duke of Manning. He's perfect for all sorts of reasons, but he thinks she dislikes him. Then, at a masked ball, Emily gets a bit tipsy and shares a very passionate kiss with him. Later on, Emily and Nicholas confess that, despite the masks, they each knew who the other person was. Circumstances then result in Nicholas having to publicly declare Emily his fiancee. It's either that, or Emily's ruination.

Emily and Nicholas make a good match, but they're both hiding things from each other. Emily has been secretly teaching at a school for former prostitutes, and, although Nicholas tells Emily about his secret deceased wife, he doesn't tell her what caused her death. Can their marriage survive all these secrets and Emily's insecurities?

Commentary:

I just realized that I used the word "secret" three times in the last paragraph of my synopsis - that's probably a good sign that those who hate Big Misunderstandings with a passion should steer clear of this one. For those who are more tolerant of that sort of thing, I can assure you that Emily, at least, had understandable reasons for keeping her secrets.

I had no idea about the Big Misunderstandings when I picked this book up. I've been gravitating towards Harlequin Historicals lately, because they're cheap grocery store buys and their covers and titles tend to be less embarrassing than the covers and titles of other Harlequin books (I swear, that tiara is covered up by a sticker on my copy, and, although the details are wrong, the necklace is in the book). Although I have two ILL books I should have been reading instead, this book grabbed my attention because I'm a huge fan of "shy heroine" romance stories. The title and back cover description told me that's what I'd be getting.

Unfortunately the back cover didn't say that this book contained one of my top least favorite romance novel tropes: a widower hero. However, my enjoyment of McCabe's writing style, several great moments (an OMG "the birds and the bees" talk, for example), and the delicious anticipation of getting to see how everything would manage to turn out all right despite the Big Misunderstandings were all enough to get me past my problems with the book. This isn't going on my "keep forever" shelves, but I'm not selling it to a used bookstore the first chance I get, either.

So, back to the "one of my least favorite tropes" thing. As far as I know, there are two main types of widower heroes: there are the ones whose former wives were such perfect beings that the heroine can't help but wonder how she could ever compete, and there are the ones whose former wives were such horrible people that they made the hero never want to marry anyone ever again. Nicholas is the first kind. Thankfully, his former wife has been dead for a while, so Emily doesn't also have to deal with Nicholas' fresh grief - that would have added unpleasantness to an already less-than-ideal situation.

I always feel a bit sorry for heroines who are paired up with widower heroes who really loved their former wives. In real life, I can accept that widows and widowers can fall in love again after the death of a beloved spouse. It's not something that works for me in a romance novel, however. Even if I'm not reading a paranormal romance that has some sort of soulmate thing going on, I still feel like the couples in romance novels should be "meant to be" - being with anyone else would just feel wrong. It's difficult to accept that a romance novel hero could have been deeply in love with someone, and then, after that person died, fall just as deeply in love with someone else. These kinds of novels always have some point where the author tries to make it clear that, although both loves are deep and true, they are different kinds of love. Well, okay, but the romance lover in me can't quite find that believable.

In the case of this book, I felt for Emily whenever she worried that she couldn't quite measure up to Nicholas' former wife, because I could understand why she might feel that way. I was able to believe in the romance McCabe wrote between Nicholas and Emily, but, believing in that, I had problems also believing in Nicholas' love for his former wife. She was cardboard to me, too perfect and not fleshed out enough to be real. This wasn't exactly a bad thing, because the novel needed to be about the romance between Nicholas and Emily, not the romance between Nicholas and his former wife. It helped that Emily actually thought about Nicholas' former wife more than he did - Nicholas grieved over her a bit in the beginning of the book, and she was the reason why he worried about Emily getting pregnant, but, aside from all that, he didn't think about her much. I was particularly thankful that he had no angsty moments where he worried that his budding love for Emily was a betrayal of his former wife.

So, the widower aspect did not bother me as much as it could have. What did bother me a bit was that I didn't get quite get what I expected when I bought the book. I bought the book because I wanted to read about a painfully shy heroine, and that's not how Emily came across to me.

The book called her shy, Emily thought about her own shyness, there were indications that her shyness had interfered with social interactions in the past, and there was also that "Ice Princess" nickname. However, for the most part, what Emily actually did in the book did not come across as shyness to me. For example, the first time she and Nicholas encountered each other in the book (they met for the first time sometime before the beginning of the book), Emily spoke to Nicholas very sensibly. He seemed to enjoy talking to her, and they got along very well.

You could say that Emily's decision to turn down Nicholas' offer to dance with her was an indication of her shyness, but I expected a heck of a lot more. I expected Emily to maybe stammer, or be unable to speak, or to babble about stupid and/or embarrassing things. Emily's tendency to stay on the sidelines or go outside whenever she was at a social event was, I felt, the only evidence of her shyness in her actions. I felt that Emily was more of a misfit (not sure if this is the best word) than a shy person. Away from parties and big crowds, she did just fine.

I was a tad unhappy when I realized I wasn't going to get the shy heroine I had hoped for, but Emily did make up for it by being interesting in other ways. Near the end of the book, one of the characters said that Emily is the sort of person who wants to please others - unlike the book's insistence that she was shy, this rang more true to me. All through the book, Emily was determined to make others happy. She was incapable of playing by society's mate-snaring rules, but she was perfectly willing to marry anyone who might have asked, if she thought it would make her family happy. After she married Nicholas, she became highly concerned with becoming a perfect duchess, so that he, too, would be happy with her. I had a feeling that, regardless of the current joy she got out of teaching at the school, she originally began teaching there because she wanted to make her former governess happy. It's not a feeling confirmed in the text of the book, but it would fit her character.

I felt that Emily's insecurities and need to please were subtle enough not to be annoying. The subtlety might even provide me with a reason to reread the book - now that I actually have more of an idea what to focus on, I'd be better able to follow the little things that indicate Emily's personality and the ways Nicholas tried to help her grow emotionally.

That brings me to one of the problems with this book - there are so very many complications/conflicts in this story that it can be a little hard to know what to pay attention to. True, some of the conflicts are interrelated, but I don't think I'm all that off base when I say that there are several romance novels worth of complications in this one book. This wasn't as obvious while I was reading, because there were some things I forgot as new conflicts and complications claimed the spotlight, but then I started trying to list all the them in preparation for writing this blog post. I'll include some of that list here:
  1. Emily's shyness (or whatever you want to call it) has kept her from getting the expected hordes of suitors. If she doesn't marry someone soon, she might end up "on the shelf."
  2. Emily works at a school that teaches former prostitutes, something that might not be seen as a suitable activity for a young, unmarried woman. Therefore, she keeps her work a secret, and secrets are blackmail fodder.
  3. Emily fears that Nicholas doesn't love her and is still in love with his perfect former wife.
  4. Emily fears Nicholas will be upset when he learns she's pregnant, because she doesn't think he loves her enough to want children with her. So, she doesn't tell him that she suspects she's pregnant.
  5. Nicholas fears that Emily will get pregnant and die in childbirth, just like his former wife. Of course, Nicholas doesn't tell Emily about any of this, resulting in #4. He wants to try to be distant from Emily, so as to reduce his chances of getting her pregnant.
  6. There is a nefarious, blackmailing villain who has designs on Emily's body and whatever money she can get him.
  7. Nicholas' family has a scandalous past - his father married his mistress. Or maybe just lived with her? I wasn't really sure - at any rate, Nicholas' father's first wife, Nicholas' mother, was still alive when Nicholas' father announced he was madly in love with someone else.
I could easily go on. There are authors who could have spun an entire book just off of the bit where Emily and Nicholas shared a passionate kiss at the masked ball, without having to introduce even half of the many other complications that McCabe does.

There is even at least one red herring thrown in for good measure. There's a bit where Emily remembers a man she tried to act friendlier towards, who then tried to force a kiss upon her and called her a tease when she resisted. Emily never told her family about this, and I figured the event would maybe cause her to resist Nicholas at first, afraid that he would be like the other man. Then maybe Nicholas would find out about the guy, or maybe there would rumors about Emily and other men.  However, nothing ever came of the detail about Emily and the other man - I suppose he was just a reason for her to be a bit more standoffish towards men.

If the book's list of complications hadn't been quite so long, there might have been more time to devote to fleshing out other things. Considering the amount that McCabe crammed into the book, I think it all came across fairly well, but there were times I just wanted...more...and instead I just got what felt like a sketch.

The book had some really great moments and scenes that helped me to like it despite my complaints about it. Even though it happens so often in romance novels that it's a bit cliched, I loved it when Nicholas got angry on Emily's behalf and went after the guy who was blackmailing her. Nicholas scored a lot of points in my book because 1) he honestly didn't give a crap about the possibility of news about Emily teaching former prostitutes causing a scandal and 2) he was the kind of guy who, although he did beat up the blackmailer, had enough control not to do anything that might scare or upset his wife.

Like I mentioned earlier, I also enjoyed (and was somewhat horrified by) the "OMG birds and the bees" talk Emily's mother had with her. I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it, and I'm pretty sure it set the worst expectations for a wedding night, ever. My favorite quote from the scene: "I used to close my eyes and plan a party" (143). I can't believe Emily's parents managed to have two children. I hope, for Emily's mother's sake, that it only took one try per child, but I somehow doubt it.

In many, many romance novels with heroines who are virgins, the heroine experiences pain during her first time having sex, but then the panicked/distraught/caring/etc. hero pauses so she can "adjust," after which everything is fantastic. Not so with this book. I actually found that to be kind of refreshing, but that feeling was ruined a little by Emily's complete willingness, even eagerness, to try again soon after their first time. I could only really find her reaction believable if I viewed it as just another example of her need to please - a less-than-romantic thought that makes their second try at sex a little icky, now that I think about it.

Overall, this book had some good aspects, but it tried a little too hard to do too many things. Also, I expected a shy heroine, with at least some of the usual things you'll find in romance novels with shy heroines, and I didn't get what I expected. This isn't even something you can blame on false advertising on the back cover - Emily's shyness is mentioned in the book itself. I just didn't feel that McCabe showed it very well.

My list of read-alikes (and one watch-alike) is very short, but I read a lot of entertaining reviews in order to put it together.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series) - In this series, Emma, a maid, and William, one of the gentry, fall in love. Maybe it's because I only just recently finished reading two volumes of Emma back-to-back, but something about Emily reminded me a lot of Emma. Both women try really hard to be the sort of people who won't embarrass the men they end up with, and both women are basically sweet, quiet, and not very good at large, noisy social gatherings. Like Nicholas, William just wants the woman he loves to be happy and be herself. Those who love historical details will probably go ga-ga over Mori's artwork.
  • A Masked Deception (book) by Mary Balogh - Another historical romance (also a Regency, I believe). Margaret, the shy heroine of this book, is 25 and has been secretly in love with the Earl of Brampton for six years. Six years ago, the two met as a masquerade and fell hard for each other. She knew who he was, but he never found out who she was. Now, Margaret has agreed to a marriage of convenience with the Earl, only to find that she's competing against herself for his affections - he's still in love with the masked girl he met at the ball. I haven't read this book, but I chose it because it's got a shy heroine (from the sounds of things, one who truly has "crippling shyness"), a hero who's still got some "past love" issues, and romance at a masked ball.
  • The Winter Duke (book) by Louise Bergin - After an unsuccessful Season, the heroine of this book returns home to social obligations and recriminations. She escapes all of that for a bit by going off into the woods to sketch, and ends up meeting a man she enjoys conversing with but who she thinks is too low in class for her to marry. What she doesn't realize is that this man is a new duke. This one might appeal to those who'd like another Regency romance featuring a heroine who is having trouble getting offers of marriage. Also, for those who like shy characters, the hero is shy and bookish.
  • Miss Seton's Sonata (book) by Meredith Bond - Another Regency romance. In this one, the heroine, Teresa, is awkward and incredibly shy. Teresa's aunt has arranged for her to be able to practice the pianoforte at the house next door. Richard, a Marquis, hears her playing and pretends to be nothing more than the caretaker of the house, sure that Teresa is just trying to snare herself a rich, titled husband. Richard is a widower who's still not over the death of his wife. He starts to fall for Teresa, though, and ends up having to marry her after he's caught kissing her. Those who'd like something else starring a widower and a shy heroine might want to try this.

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