Desert Isle Keeper
The Duke Undone
This book took me by surprise. I thought by the look of the cover that I’d be reading something lighter and more predictable – but as we all know, you can’t judge a book by its cover. The Duke Undone is a captivating story about a deeply flawed hero and the woman who recognizes the ‘hero’ in him. There’s a satisfying romance, an almost overwhelming obstacle to true love, and a mystery to be solved.
By day, Lucy Coover is an art student at the Royal Academy. By night she lives in the slums of Shoreditch helping her aunt with her failing seamstress business. One morning on the way to the Academy, Lucy stumbles over a corpse – a naked, male corpse. She is upset but also fascinated, because female students in this Victorian time period, are not permitted to attend classes where artists study the human body. She takes a good, long look – only then noticing that this is not a corpse, only a very drunk man. She covers him with her cloak, pays a street urchin to watch over him, and rushes off to class.
Lucy can’t forget the ‘corpse’ and paints a portrait of it, having no idea the body is that of Anthony Philby, the new Duke of Weston. When she and her aunt are desperate for money, she sells the painting to Adelaide Forbes, whose husband discovers it and confronts Anthony (thinking he must be having an affair with his wife). Anthony has no idea how this painting came to be or who the artist is, but he is determined to uncover these secrets. This is a scandal he can’t afford.
Anthony is trapped by his father’s will. His late duke was a sanctimonious ass and his elder brother was a rake of the worst variety. They are both dead but Anthony’s father has managed to put the dukedom in the hands of his best friend Robert Yardley in trusteeship until Anthony turns thirty. And then, if Anthony has stayed sober and not caused any scandals, the dukedom will transfer to him; otherwise the trusteeship will continue. Anthony is stuck in a desperate situation – a duke in name only, unable to control his finances or aid his tenants who are begging him for help. Worst of all, his beloved sister Effie has disappeared and Anthony suspects Yardley knows where she is.
Anthony searches for the portrait artist and eventually finds “L. Coover” at the Academy. He confronts her and they strike a bargain. He won’t tell the Academy about what she’s done and she will help him search for his sister in the slums of London. A lovely friendship and riveting mystery follows.
The Duke Undone starts out light but quickly deepens. The first thing I loved about it was the evocative writing – Ms. Lowell can pen a beautiful sentence. Soon I was captivated by the struggles of Lucy and Anthony and the high stakes involved in Anthony’s plight. The underlying mystery of what happened to Effy (and to Anthony’s mother) is very well-written and leads to a perfectly plotted conclusion.
I was fully drawn to Lucy and Anthony. Anthony is an unusual hero and I was completely fascinated by him. His whole life, he has been told he is a disappointment and not worthy of his name. He is dyslexic and so, at this time period, assumed to be slow. He was sent off to Afghanistan with the Army, but his heroism there was rewritten by his father as more proof of his hedonism. And the lesson Anthony came away with is that even when he gets it right, he’s still not enough, still degraded and punished. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. And Yardley is a master at gaslighting Anthony. When Lucy meets Anthony, his power has been stripped, his will destroyed, and he is trapped by a plague of inertia.
He didn’t know how to be himself; it was painfully obvious. He was trying to break out of molds made by other men. His father. His brother. What would it look like, a portrait of his inner self? Black and red, brown and amber, no figures, its essence in shades, modulation, sensation. She could barely imagine such a painting.
Lucy recognizes Anthony’s inertia for what it is – not laziness but despair and fear, and she sees Anthony more clearly than he sees himself. She is afraid to get too close to Anthony whose failings now include liquor. Lucy’s father was an alcoholic and she has no desire to tie herself to another of them. But she’s a tough cookie – if she can help the Duke and get something she needs from him, she’s going to do it (and protect herself along the way).
This book drew me in and kept my attention all the way to the end. Sometimes I raced through the pages; other times I savored them, not reading more than a chapter at a time, needing an emotional break. I despaired alongside Lucy for Anthony’s future and my heart broke for Anthony whenever he tried and failed to get his power back. It was a tumultuous ride!
I confess I did wonder if the inheritance parameters suffered by Anthony were legal in Victorian England. I have my doubts, but the author states in her Author’s Note that she consulted “Victorian estate law” so that “nothing I wrote was strictly impossible”. If you are a stickler for 100% accuracy, you have been warned.
I’m not sure all readers will be as sympathetic to Anthony’s plight as I was; it’s hard to love a hero who has been so beaten down and who struggles with alcoholism. But lately I’ve been trying to reframe my ‘judgments’ of heroes/heroines by switching their roles. If Anthony’s plight was the heroine’s plight, I think we would all be more impressed with his eventual redemption. We readers can be hard on our heroes! At the end of The Duke Undone, we hope but don’t know that Anthony’s struggle with alcohol is over. For me, this was true to life and not sugar-coated. It’s an HEA knowing that there are still challenges ahead.
Ms. Lowell does a fabulous job developing her secondary characters and word on the street is that there will be more books to come featuring these characters. I’m looking forward to reading them. In the meantime, I highly recommend The Duke Undone!