The Duchess by Sophie Jordan


CW/TW?

CW: Domestic violence (in the past, but discussed in some detail in flashbacks), some violence

Sarah: This book is extraordinary in that the cover copy, the plot, and the characters all hinted at many potential delights, and delivered on none of them. When Lara messaged me about the book since I’d mentioned it in a recent Hide Your Wallet, we decided to review the book together. 

The cover copy mentions that this is a “new high concept series, The Scandalous Ladies of London, which chronicles the lives of a group of affluent ladies reigning over glittering, Regency-era London, vying for position in the hierarchy of the ton.” This sounds interesting. There’s a subtle alignment with fantasy opulent reality tv like the Real Housewives – at least, I thought so anyway. It seemed like there might be some exploration of the development and deployment of social power structures, and the limitations on the women inside them. Nope.

They are the young wives, widows, and daughters of London’s wealthiest families. The drama is big, the money runs deep, and the shade is real. Life is different in the ton.

All of those things might be true, but they’re not in this book.

Here’s the complete cover copy, so you don’t have to click and look it up:

The thrilling second book in New York Times bestselling author Sophie Jordan’s amazing new high concept series, The Scandalous Ladies of London, which chronicles the lives of a group of affluent ladies reigning over glittering, Regency-era London, vying for position in the hierarchy of the ton. They are the young wives, widows, and daughters of London’s wealthiest families. The drama is big, the money runs deep, and the shade is real. Life is different in the ton.

“I liked my husband well enough … but I like him even better dead.”

It’s been a year since her wretched cad of a husband died and Valencia, the Dowager Duchess of Dedham, is finally her own woman. Flitting from party to party, freedom is sweet and life should be perfect. Until the new duke surfaces.

Nothing like the haughty noblemen who populate the ton, Rhain, the newly minted Duke of Dedham, is a big brawny Welshman with an accent that makes Valencia’s knees go weak as he boldly moves into her home with his six wild unwed sisters. The rude and humorless usurper thinks her vain and spoiled. But with a pittance to her name, Valencia needs his support to remain in London and enjoy all the pleasures her new position as a merry widow has to offer.

So a bargain is struck. Valencia will usher his sisters into Good Society and see them happily betrothed. In return, he’ll give her the financial security and independence she craves. But the more time they spend beneath the same roof, the more she realizes it’s not safety she wants but the dangerously seductive Rhain. Valencia has vowed never to risk marriage again. And yet how can she resist the tempting man when he might be the greatest adventure of her life?

The story opens with Valencia, the widowed dowager Duchess of Dedham, heading to a party on a barge. There are hints that her late husband was terrible (he was) and she’s ready to finally emerge from mourning (indeed). She falls into the Thames (ew) and is fished out by some gentlemen, including one surly, scowly dude who is surly and scowls at her (that’s a lot of his personality, alas) and, wet and deflated and very unhappy, she heads home.

She wakes up to mayhem in her home the next morning. The new duke has arrived. His name is Rhain, he is a massively sized dude from Wales who is barely interested in his new title, and has 12 (Twelve. TWELVE.) sisters, six of whom must make their entrance into society. Is he also Mr. Surly and Scowly from the night before? Of course he is.

The best part of this opening mayhem is Elin, who announces her backstory:

“A month ago I was in trousers and fishing at the local pond with lads from the village. Now I’m rubbing elbows with blue-blooded prigs and standing next to paintings that belong in a museum.”

Got it!

Lara: I picked up this book because it promised DRAMA. I anticipated something like Dynasty but set in Regency London, but alas! (Side note: if someone has read a book like that, please drop the title in the comments!)

This book promised so much. The cover? Lush. The cover copy? Decadent. But no delivery on that promise, like Sarah said. I did read a particularly scathing Goodreads review before starting this book and that definitely prompted me to keep reading when I otherwise would have given up. I needed to get to that ending that had the reviewer up in arms. More on that ending later.

The one thing the book kind of offered me was an acknowledgement of the strictures placed upon women at the time. This was a kind of frustrated side note with not much unpacking or further development. Valencia herself was acutely aware of the ways in which her life was shaped by the men around her. Sadly, given the context, it was not Valencia who stepped up and shaped her destiny. Rather it fell to Rhain to be the knight in shining armour when the estate agents were making decisions for Valencia.

There is a secondary character that I was curious about: Valencia’s stepmother, Hazel – a younger woman married to Valencia’s misogynistic father. Hazel had worked as a courtesan and had been Valencia’s father’s mistress until she married him. This was a story that we had small snippets of and I would have dearly loved more of it.

Sarah: Yes, there were many places where I thought a side plot or character would develop that didn’t. I thought there was going to be a lot more to the story. The cover copy and the narration from Valencia’s point of view in just the first chapter dropped interesting hints and made, I thought, promises of some potentially juicy situations. But the characters themselves and their dialogue, the plot, and the details are all very obvious, almost ham fisted.

The tension of someone not raised within the ton finding themselves within it, and from such a social position that they cannot be rejected outright (dukedoms have uses) is a very tempting lure for me. The distance between a character and the expectations placed upon them, whether that person is a dowager widow or a newly inherited duke, or one of the chaotic sisters of said duke, is part of what I was hoping to read about. There’s barely even a makeover – and there was the potential for SIX. SIX makeovers!

The tension of transforming six young women from rural Wales into people who know what to do in the various, intricately weird social gatherings of the upper class? Hardly present. I’m so bummed. There is a lot of exploration of Valencia’s marriage, which indeed was terrible, but Valencia and Rhain have a whopping case of insta-love, and as a person who adores internal conflict, I disliked that immensely.

Social barriers and class structures are tricky and complex and nuanced. The book seemed to promise some navigation of that complexity, and delivered so little.

Lara: The first three quarters of this book is really a damp squib. It is rare that a book that involves a trip to a sex club can be described as dowdy, but this one is. It just really underdelivered on its promises. There was one relatively hot sex scene, but otherwise just kind of boring kisses. The sex club trip had one solitary kiss for our leads!

I’m open to insta-love in certain contexts, but this example of it fell really flat for me. I really missed the dynamism of two complex characters growing both individually and together. This felt very “paint by numbers”.

Now the ending, which I shall hide behind a spoiler because it was a surprise, I’ll say that, but not in a good way.

Herein lie spoilers.

In the final 10% of the novel, Valencia is kidnapped by an enemy whose identity I shall protect.

Sarah: It’s Elin. She got some fishing line and made a big ol’ snare. (I’m kidding.)

Lara: While there is some tension built in the flashback scenes to Valencia’s husband’s death, this kidnapping felt very out of the blue.

Sarah: It was very unexpected and so different in tone from the rest of the novel that I said, out loud, ‘What is HAPPENING right now?!’ while I was reading.

Lara: It is as though the book makes a dramatic jump from romantic drama into mystery or thriller, and there wasn’t really the build up to show that that jump would be taking place.

Sarah: Yes, that’s exactly it. It was like a completely different genre ending was tacked on. The romance between Rhain and Valencia didn’t have much build, either. And to build suspense or tension, whether that’s in a crowded society gathering or between characters or in an overall plot, there have to be some stakes, and I didn’t feel like there were many here – until the whiplash of the last 15% or so.

Lara: Grading this is a tough one for me because I did read the whole thing over a couple days. I think I land firmly in the D category. It’s not great, but it’s still a readable book even though I didn’t particularly love the reading experience and it was peppered with groans of exasperation rather than sighs of joy.

Sarah: I think one reason I jumped on the opportunity to review this with you, Lara, is that it allows me to talk about everything without a lot of waving my arms around and making noise. I was so tempted by the mentions of “scandal” and “vying for position” and there really wasn’t much of what I had been expecting?

And originally I thought the problem was me! Maybe my expectations were incorrect, or maybe I read the copy wrong or drew the wrong conclusion. It’s a relief to know I’m not alone in thinking this book would be much more soapy and effervescent than it was. Like you, I would love to read a dishy, scandalous romance with socially fluent and powerful women constantly renegotiating their limited power. That sounds awesome.

Lara: We are in perfect harmony on many fronts!

Sarah: I would land on a C- for this book after much examination of my own very interesting navel (I am a blogger at heart, after all). A lot of my frustrations aren’t necessarily the fault of the book, but are the fault of the copy and the marketing. The book not matching its marketing is not a problem with the book itself, but the bizarre addition of a late-third-act tone and genre shift along with some worn tropes and backstory-laden dialogue were problems for me.

 



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