The Runaway Duchess
It’s sometimes hard to turn your antagonist into a protagonist. I have to give Joanna Lowell credit for not drastically changing the character of her heroine here, but there’s only one thing wrong with The Runaway Duchess – and it’s the heroine. I know, this book is all about a girl growing up and becoming a better person after being spoiled as a child, but good God, it takes her half the book to do it.
Lavinia Yardley is horrified to receive a marriage proposal from the Duke of Cranbrook. The man is an old letch, and not her idea of a romantic match, even though she wants to be a duchess more than anything. But her family has no money, and marrying Cranbrook will save them all, so she accepts him. At the train station, married and waiting to go off on honeymoon with her new spouse, she is mistaken for botanist Mrs Muriel Pendrake, and seizes upon the chance to get away, though she does not know anything about plants.
Neal Traymayne has worked his way up from talented plant hunter to head of Varnham Nursery. He and the real Muriel are pen-pals who have had a long-distance courtship and agreed to marry. The difference between the Muriel in front of him and the woman in her letters confounds him.
You know what happens next – Lavinia tromping through the woodlands looking for plant samples, pretending she knows things, learning how plants work; Neal being confused but trying to appreciate her; them falling in love in spite of themselves; the real Muriel showing up. I like the way The Runaway Duchess’ plot is set-up works, but to get through it, you have to spend way too much time with snotty, haughty Lavinia.
I know – she’s spoiled and she thinks she ought to have everything handed to her on a silver platter for a reason. She’s never had to work hard for a living, and never had to present herself as a professional person. But there’s a lot of flailing and ridiculousness to climb through before she surfaces as a whole woman. And in the meantime, I hated Lavinia. Hated, hated, hated her, Big Time, and thought poor Neal, who is kind and handsome and loves plants, deserved better until the middle of the book.
But then Lavinia grows up – a bit late for me, but grow she does. Things make more scene in her relationship with Neal, and she becomes a botanist of her very own stripe. I definitely like the notion of a villainous character being redeemed. But Lavinia just…grated on me so much for what felt like a very long first half.
I definitely enjoyed Lowell’s sense of time and place here; her research into botany is magnificent. That, Lavinia’s development, and Neal are the reasons why The Runaway Duchess lands in B territory. But the first half of the book is a pretty hard slog, which definitely hindered it from coming anywhere near a DIK.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier