Mad About the Duke
Sometimes it’s easy to sum up one’s reaction while reading a book in one word. In the case of Mad About the Duke by Elizabeth Boyle, that word is impatience. I very much wanted the book to end, I put it aside twice, for more than a week each time, and when I had finally reached the last page I felt mostly relief.
Starting this novel feels like switching on the TV in the middle of the umptieth episode of a soap opera: There are lots of characters around you know nothing about, everybody alludes to events that went on before and you don’t know anything about but are obviously expected to, and to tow you in, little snippets of information are thrown around left and right that are not quite enough for the new reader but contrived enough to annoy the heck out of anyone already up-to-date with Ms. Boyle’s work.
The first scene of this novel is set simultaneously with the final scenes in How I Met My Countess, the first volume in the Standon Widows series. Elinor, the widowed Marchioness of Standon, returns from an errand, and in the hall of the house she shares with two other widowed Lady Standons, comes across a good-looking stranger sporting a black eye and wearing an ill-fitting coat. Thinking him an attorney her relative-by-marriage the Duke of Hollindrake has promised to send over, she first asks him to assist in delivering her greyhound’s pups, and then hires him to investigate some dukes as likely marital prospects. Elinor is being pressured to remarry by the Duchess of Hollindrake (heroine of Love Letters from a Duke, the fifth volume in the Bachelor Chronicles); even more urgently she needs an influential husband to wrest her younger sister’s guardianship from her villainous stepfather.
Not quite unexpectedly, the man in the hall is not plain Mr. St. Maur, he is James Tremont, the Duke of Parkerton. For reasons described in detail in How I Met My Countess, he had to apologize to Lucy, heroine of that book, in a hurry – thus the coat – and is about to leave when he spots Elinor and is staggered by her beauty – so much that he never disagrees when she calls him an attorney and even takes her on as a client. Then he goes home to talk about what happened to him to his brother Lord Jack Tremont (hero of This Rake of Mine, the first volume in the Bachelor Chronicles).
This summary of the first chapter already highlights two of the novel’s major weaknesses: Overload with established characters, and discussions of pivotal scenes in retrospect instead of just presenting these scenes. Not having read any of Elizabeth Boyle’s earlier novels, I didn’t give a fig what was the matter with Lucy or how Jack and his wife Miranda would react to James’s story. To my relief, that particular narrative device stops around page 70, and from that moment on the scenes between Elinor and James are described as they happen. The minor characters also take a step back, but it exasperated me throughout that every single character who appears, with one possible exception, meddles in Elinor and James’s romance.
The novel’s third weakness, and in my eyes the worst, is the fact that character consistency and character development are sacrificed to effect. The novel is immensely plot-driven, with loads of coincidences, near-disclosures, interruptions at inopportune moments – you get the drift. To make this possible, both James and Elinor act dumb and/or inconsistent at times, like Elinor investigating some of her possible suitors to the last detail and missing information ridiculously easy to access about others; or always believing what the most unreliable person tells her, while dismissing information from those she ought to know she can trust.
Elinor and James are rather old for leads in a historical romance –31 and 44 respectively –, but the author misses the opportunity to develop characters that actually deal with what being of that age meant, at that period. Instead both used to be rather stiff and repressed, and now kick up a lark – amusing to read about to an extent, but blandly suitable to all ages from 25 to 45.
While I was often exasperated by the more obviously funny scenes, deeming them so very contrived, some other, more intense moments caught my interest, and it was then the novel found some redeeming quality. Examples for this are when James shows Elinor around a house he pretends to be the steward of, or when he plays at loo. These scenes were pleasant, but they were too few and far between.
If you aren’t already immersed in Elizabeth Boyle’s world, Mad About the Duke is about the worst starting point I can imagine. The novel stands on its own badly, and if I compare my reading experience with earlier reviews here at AAR, it appears there are much better books by this author out there. My own interest in Elizabeth Boyle’s romances has suffered a definite setback, but I might give one of her earlier novels another chance.