The Duchess Diaries
AARList Moderator Anne Marble has what she calls a “dog-ear” test: the more a reviewer folds over the pages of a book as she’s reading, the more disappointing the book is likely to turn out. The top edge of my copy of The Duchess Diaries is about a third thicker than the bottom edge, because of all the pages I dog-eared. A lackluster plot, an impulse-control-challenged heroine, and characters with 21st-century sensibilities added up to a book that teetered on the edge of wallbanger territory for me.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before:
The late Lady Ashton left each of her granddaughters a small bequest, but none of them can collect a penny unless the eldest, Lady Lara Darling, travels to town for a successful Season that will of course end in a wedding. The only problem with this plan is that headstrong Lara doesn’t want to go to London; she doesn’t want to get married. She just wants to hang around Ashton Hall for the rest of her life, fishing and driving her absentminded father’s run-down coach. But in a Supreme Sacrifice for her sisters, Lara agrees to the journey, hoping she’ll be able to snare a rich old guy who’ll drop dead after the wedding – and the sooner, the better. On the way to town she can’t resist the urge to show off her driving skills in an ill-advised race – she knows she shouldn’t do it, but she just can’t help herself. Besides, she can’t let that gorgeous coachman think she doesn’t know how to drive!
No, really… stop me if you’ve figured the plot out yet:
Griff Hallsbury, Baron of Trenton, has fallen on hard times. Because of his wastrel youth and involvement in a tragic accident, Griff’s been reduced to driving a mail coach, and supplementing that income with the winnings of clandestine nighttime races against the young bloods of the ton. Now he’s got to make up an alias for a beauty named Lara Darling, so her reputation won’t be ruined if the news about her involvement in an unseemly carriage race gets out. He invents somebody named “Mrs. Hastings,” who he swears was the mysterious female driver. When his nemesis, Lord Rutherford, lets it be known that he’ll pay “Mrs. Hastings” to race Griff, the impecunious baron knows he’s got to stop Lara from rising to the bait, since he understands Rutherford is only doing it to get back at him. Can Griff convince Lara to walk away from this temptation? And can he resist the temptation she represents to him?
Oh. You know this one already?
“So what?” you ask. “There’s no such thing as a truly original plot.” True, most of the charm in a successful romance novel comes not just from the ingredients but also in how they’re mixed together. By that standard, unfortunately, this book doesn’t work. Which ingredient failed most for me? Should I start with the description of the headgear worn by Lara’s sponsor, Lady Tattenbaum, a “formidable wig” with “plastic birds nesting therein”? Plastic? In the Georgian era – or would that be the Regency, since the Regent makes an appearance in the book’s last chapter? All this talk of wigs and powdered hair and dresses with hoops left me confused. I thought the Regency featured high-waisted Empire gowns and hair left more or less in its natural state.
Griff is a checklist hero. Devastatingly handsome? Check. Tragic past, complete with Evil, Scheming Woman? Check. Best friend whose life he ruined, who now won’t speak to him? Check. Spurred by the need to repair his family fortune and name? Check. Torn between his desire for the heroine and the realization that he has to save her from herself? Check. Check, check, check, already, so that I had to check to make sure I was still awake. But at least Griff can control himself, which is more than I could say for Lara.
Ah, Lara. The average toddler has more control over his actions than Lara does over hers. As she’s doing dumb things, she knows they’re dumb; she even considers not doing them, but she just can’t resist. On top of that, she breaks one of the Cardinal Rules for Savvy Romance Heroines and admits her secret – to the villain. No, no, no, no, no. Also, may I ask a question: where does a reader go to find a historical heroine who’s a true product of her times, one who doesn’t throw up her skirts for the first hunk to cross her path, one who realizes that she has to marry or she’ll starve, and isn’t forced into it by a creaky plot device like a will stipulation?
The supporting cast isn’t much better. Lara’s sisters traipse onstage in all their cardboard glory: the Smart One, the Vain One, the Calm One, etc., and I’ll bet that each of them is going to get her own book (wait a minute – didn’t Danelle Harmon already do this so much better for Avon?). Their father – nobody can be so absentminded and preoccupied that he forgets his wife’s been dead for years. Lara’s sponsor in London, Lady Tattenbaum, is Yet Another Unconventional But Well-Connected Society Matron Who Knows the Hero’s Secret. Big deal; within two chapters of meeting him, so did I. The only character with any depth was Lord Rutherford, believe it or not, and then only because he wasn’t Evil so much as he was Wounded.
The most annoying element for me had to be the decidedly modern tone to the characters’ speech and thoughts. I’ve come up with a term for Georgian and/or Regency era characters who think and sound more like they belong in our times than either of those periods: Thames Valley Girls. The only thing the cast of The Duchess Diaries needs is a mall and a Mustang, and they’d be right at home in SoCal. “Yuck”? “Eeeuw”? Did I stumble into the halls of Thames Valley High? With all the “Excuse me’s,” the “Anyways,” the “Oh, fine’s,” and the “Get over it’s,” my confusion was natural. I came close to holding up a hand, palm out, and uttering, “Whatever.”
So: predictable plot, flat characterizations, anachronisms out the nostrils, and a style more suitable to the Thames Valley yearbook than a Regency (or is that Georgian?) historical made this read a difficult one for me. They say, Every book its reader, every reader her book; the only problem for me here is that I can’t imagine whose book this one is. For sure I know it’s mine – Not.