Jenny Holiday calls Duke Actually and its predecessor, A Princess for Christmas, her “Hallmark Christmas movie in book form except with sex and swearing” series. It’s quite apt: like a Hallmark movie, this book has plenty of cheer.
Dani, an English professor in New York, would rather be a writer. She would also rather be divorced from Vince, who cheated on her with a student, demanded her share of their joint research in exchange for not taking the dog, and refuses to sign the paperwork. Her best friend Leo recently ended up engaged to Marie, the Crown Princess of Eldovia, which means she has to do yet another thing she’d rather not: as Leo’s “best man”, she has to collaborate with Maximillian von Hansburg, Baron of Laudon, who is Marie’s “man of honor” – and who Marie jilted to marry Leo in the previous book.
But Max isn’t quite as entitled or superficial as Dani expects, and Dani, to Max’s surprise, sees potential in a jobless playboy. Soon, they’re finding more excuses to spend time together – if they can overcome Max’s traumatic childhood and the literal ocean that keeps them apart.
Holiday can be genuinely funny:
Dani: Any chance you want to be my plus-one to my work holiday party, and which my soon-to-be ex-husband, Vince, will be in attendance, as will his new girlfriend, who is a former student of both of ours and who is twenty years younger than he is?
Max: Is your soon-to-be-ex-husband the main character in a Philip Roth novel?
Max is more engaging than many ‘wealthy aristocrat’ heroes. I liked his relationship with his younger brother Sebastien. He’s aware of his good fortune and financial privilege, wanting to find a way to be purposeful, while still enjoying staying at the Four Seasons and wearing designer suits. As Dani observes, wealthy people “were always trying to pretend to be middle class. ‘The cost of living in New York, am I right?’ they’d say, like they had something in common with her. Not Max, though” The details of departmental politics at Dani’s college are well-drawn, from the tenure portfolio process to the need to put on a good show at departmental parties. Still, it felt contrived that Dani would get so far into this world and then decide oops, she’d rather have a different job – and gosh, it could be done anywhere! Gosh, could this play any kind of role in resolving the big geographical conflict in this relationship?
As mentioned, Duke, Actually is the sequel to A Princess for Christmas, but suffers less than usual from sequel-itis, especially given that it is set across the wedding of that book’s leads. Usually the author fills an entire swimming pool with the treacle of previous protagonists’ superlative joy and then holds our heads under the surface until we choke it down, but this book displays more restraint. It even comments occasionally about how Dani and Leo can’t remain the friends they were now that he has found his true love. It did feel a bit stilted at times (with character recapping, or when Dani describes Leo’s love story as “a gender-swapped Cinderella story” – thanks for the marketing blurb, Dani!). However, it’s not terrible.
What are some other challenges? My ARC had one strange editing error, where Max refers to having earned “two degrees from Oxford” but also having Cambridge as his “alma mater.” At one point, Max is eyebrow-raisingly oblivious to his brother’s true relationship status. Max and Dani have their obligatory crisis, which Dani responds to immaturely, and which is resolved by a single conversation Max has with his brother in which Max has a Grand Realization, when a Grand Decade of Therapy seems more likely to be successful. And, while I would like to avoid spoilers, a scene towards the end is confusingly written to land halfway between slapstick comedy and serious issue.
Overall, Duke, Actually is an enjoyable, relaxing read. If it is a bit formulaic and occasionally flawed, it’s still a modern Christmas fairy tale that captures the magic of the season.
Buy it at: Amazon, Audible, or your local independent retailer
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I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.