Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Meredith Duran

REVIEW:  Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

REVIEW: Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

Fool Me Twice by Meredith DuranDear Ms. Duran:

When I read the blurb for this book, I was a little uneasy: “Running for her life, exhausted and out of options, Olivia Holladay wants nothing more than the chance to make a home for herself. So when she realizes that the infamous Duke of Marwick might hold the key to her freedom, she boldly disguises herself as the newest and bravest in a long line of the duke’s notoriously temperamental housekeepers. Little does she know that the wickedly handsome Alastair de Grey has very different plans for her. ” I tried to figure out why I disliked this plotline and I think it’s not so much that I dislike it but that it makes me anxious. Deception-from-the-start storylines are tricky; on the one hand, I guess it’s good that I’m already invested enough to care about when the heroine will be found out and how much conflict this will cause with the hero. On the other hand, if I wanted reading material to make me queasy I’d read in the car more often.

So, Olivia and Alastair, the aforementioned duke, each appeared in the previous book in the series, That Scandalous Summer. She is (or was) the proper and buttoned-up secretary to that book’s flighty and scandalous heroine, whereas he is the older brother of the hero. IIRC, Alastair played a bigger part in That Scandalous Summer; he was devastated by his wife’s death and by certain revelations about her character, and took it out on Michael, the hero, by trying to control who he married. Olivia was just sort of in the background, though it was a discovery she made as Elizabeth’s secretary in that book that brings her to the duke’s doorstep in this one.

Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, is a mess. His wife died shockingly and suddenly in a hotel room, and shortly after Alastair discovered that she cuckolded him with any number of men. Worse still, with powerful men, to whom she passed on political secrets Alastair had shared with her. For Alastair isn’t just a duke; he’s a political mover-and-shaker with aspirations to be Prime Minister one day. Both the personal betrayal and the knowledge that he might be thrust into public ignominy (a position he’s avoided like the plague his whole like because his parents were both infamous wastrels) have brought Alastair to his knees; he hasn’t left his house in the better part of a year and in fact spends all of his time in his rooms brooding, drinking and imagining killing his wife’s lovers.

Olivia is on the run; since leaving home at 17 she’s feared her mother’s erstwhile lover, Bertram. Bertram tried to discourage Olivia from coming to London (to go to secretarial school) after her mother died. When Olivia defied him and did arrive in London, she was met at the train station by Bertram’s servant, who proceeded to take her to an isolated country road and strangle her. Left for dead in a ditch, Olivia has been looking over her shoulder ever since, and she’s afraid she’s been found. But for the first time in a long time Olivia has hope; she happened to stumble across evidence at her former employer’s that she believes she can use to blackmail Bertram into leaving her alone. The problem is, the evidence is now apparently locked up in the Duke of Marwick’s residence. So Olivia plots to gain entry by getting hired as a maid. It’s a sign of how badly the house has descended into chaos that she actually not only gets hired, but is asked to temporarily take on the role of head housekeeper (at the unlikely age of 25; her lack of years is made up for by the control she quickly exerts over the staff, who have been slacking hardcore since the master retreated to his rooms).

Once ensconced in Alastair’s home, Olivia begins discreetly searching for the missing evidence. She quickly concludes that they must be in the duke’s rooms. Her first attempt to draw him out of the rooms so she can search them is less than successful – Marwick throws a bottle at her head. But soon the two are sparring in typical and time-honored hero/heroine fashion, and Alastair is beginning to come reluctantly back to life. Olivia finds that she cares not just for finding the letters that will protect her, but about setting Alastair’s home to rights and, if she can, reminding him that he is a brilliant man whose country needs him. (She discovers his brilliance by reading his writings on all manner of subjects, while looking for her elusive evidence. Alastair is, of course, a reform-minded liberal who really cares about The Poor, even though he’s a duke. This part was a little too good to be true for me, much like his brother Michael’s role as doctor to the downtrodden/rake extraordinaire was in the previous book.)

So, this is where it starts to get crunchy. Olivia has mixed motives, and the reader knows that Alastair is going to discover her secrets  sooner or later. It’s that much worse because Alastair has already been devastated by a very personal betrayal by a woman he trusted and loved. When it came time to pay the piper I was uncomfortable with Alastair’s vengefulness (especially given the power differential between him and Olivia), but at the same time I couldn’t say that his anger was unexpected or unreasonable, given the circumstances. Dude has good reason to be angry.

There’s nothing about Fool Me Twice that is groundbreaking or even particularly original, at least in terms of plot and characterization. The starchy heroine with a backbone of steel is familiar, as is the imperious aristocrat brought low (though I do in particular like the latter type of character). There was a plot twist in the middle of the story that was telegraphed pretty clearly ahead of time, and another later that ended up surprising me. I also did like Alastair’s solution to the problem of the letters in the end; it was courageous and showed that he’d grown as a person.

I also liked Alastair’s attempts to make amends with his brother Michael. His behavior towards Michael in That Scandalous Summer was truly unconscionable and hurt innocent people (when Michael didn’t bend to Alastair’s will, Alastair shut down the hospital for the poor that he’d been funding). Once Alastair has recovered from his breakdown, he is truly ashamed and repentant and the tentative quality of their reconciliation was touching (and felt more true to life than those times where one character forgives the other instantly no matter how heinous the behavior involved).

Where this story really comes together is in the fact that it does each of its parts well: prose, plot, characterization. I expect nothing less from this author, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate a good historical romance, done well. My grade for Fool Me Twice is a high B+.

Best regards,

Jennie

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

REVIEW: Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran

fool

Dear Ms. Duran:

Just the title is probably enough to clue in readers of That Scandalous Summer that this book will be about widower Alistair de Grey, who went spectacularly round the bend over his late wife’s betrayal in that story. And who else would he be paired with but the mysterious, undoubtedly deceitful Olivia Mather. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the first book though, the story can stand alone.

Olivia is up the Victorian equivalent of shit creek, and she’s desperately searching for a paddle. She’s already been left for dead once and though she doesn’t know the why of it, she does know the who – crooked politician Baron Bertram. Sick of running and hiding, Olivia decides to find protection for herself; she applies for a job as a maid to the Duke of Marwick, planning to search for blackmail material. The Duke is known as a kingmaker, “friend to princes, patron of prime ministers, and puppet master of countless MPs,” and as Olivia knows, he also has reason to hate Bertram.

Olivia may have been forced into impersonation, thievery and blackmail, but she’s a punctilious person at heart and she’s shocked at the state of things in the duke’s house. “…if Marwick had once governed the nation, he now failed to govern even his own home. His servants were running wild.” Marwick himself hasn’t left his suite in months. Things are so desperate that the butler gives the obviously well educated applicant a job as temporary housekeeper. And although she’s supposed to be concentrating on her search, Olivia finds herself at the mercy of her worst flaw, a need to “interfere and manage and fix things.” Not just the state of the house and the recalcitrant servants… but the master of the house himself.

Fool Me Twice is surprisingly old skool in tone, not something I expected from a Duran story. (I say in tone, because the action doesn’t actually venture far into bodice-ripper territory.) Alistair’s state of mind is extremely dark, especially when we discover that his agoraphobia is based on the fear that if he goes anywhere near the people who helped his wife betray him, he’ll kill them. His deliberate intimidation of Olivia is genuinely frightening:

He lifted a brow, which gave her a weird shock; it was the first animation she had seen on his frigid countenance. ‘Silence? But a moment ago you had so very much to say.’ He placed his thumb on her lower lip, then made a firm, hard stroke. She tasted the salt on his skin.

This was not happening. She seemed to move outside her body, viewing from above this unbelievable moment: the Duke of Marwick, molesting her.

He withdrew his thumb. Lifted it to his own mouth. Tasting her.

Their eyes met, his impossibly blue, not a speck of hazel or gold to break their electric intensity. A curious prickle spread through her.

He made a contemptuous noise and dropped his hand. ‘Disobedience,’ he said. ‘The taste of it does not suit me.’

[…]

She turned her face away. Staring at the wall, she said rapidly, ‘The staff assures me that you have never been the kind of cowardly man who abuses his servants–’

His fist slammed into the wall.

She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. His fist had missed her ear by inches, no more.

‘I am precisely that kind of man,’ he said bitterly. ‘Or did you imagine you were dreaming this episode?’

The progression of feeling between them is carefully drawn. Olivia is dismayed to find herself sorry for Alistair: “this sudden fleeting sympathy was undeserved by him, and ridiculous of her and… the very opposite of armor.” And through reading his papers, she discovers that he’s highly intelligent and was once an impassioned idealist. Perhaps she’s better able to relate to him because she’s also discovering her own dark side, especially when she realizes that one of the men Alistair yearns to kill is Bertram.

A horrible thought gripped her: if he murdered Bertram, her own life would become so much simpler!

She caught her breath, appalled by herself — and by him, too.
[..] And suddenly she felt outclassed. It was a startling and unpleasant and very novel experience, but somehow he had done it: he had turned the tables on her, not with brute strength but with his wits. For now, if she encouraged him to leave these rooms, she would be a party to his murderous intentions.

And he had made sure she knew it.

‘I can’t say I support murder,’ she managed. She hoped God took note of this virtue, and marked it to counterbalance her longer lists of sins.

Meanwhile, interacting with another human being is helping Alistair move away from his “violent, broken, shattered, murderous self.” (The self very much like his despised father.) Their relationship becomes a more standard battle of wits, and I started to feel impatient at this point. It had such a cliched feel — feisty woman vs. bear with wounded paw; it’s probably just me, but I even started thinking of the stately Olivia as being small, and apt to pound her tiny fists. (It didn’t help when Alistair told her, “You are baiting the wrong man, little girl.”) Olivia’s genuine fear becomes fear of their mutual attraction, which also pushed my particular “tired of it now” buttons. The story picks up again when Marwick, as he inevitably would, discovers Olivia’s deceit.

The strength of the book is the language around the complex, ever-changing emotions both characters are feeling. Even the more familiar moments are beautifully expressed:

He found himself groping for another script to guide him. But there was nothing now in his brain but his instinct, his rotten instinct, which wanted to smash something. Or tie her up, swaddle her in gauze, lock her away somewhere he could study her until he understood… something.

The sex scenes are particularly vivid and passionate. Yet somehow, I still wasn’t entirely in love with these characters or this relationship. There were just too many echoes for me, despite the beauty of the writing. I feel like I’ve read variants of this conversation a hundred times (and didn’t like it then, either):

‘You could not have hustled me out of that flat more quickly this morning. And now you’re refusing to have a conversation. Are you afraid that you disappointed me? For I assure you, it wouldn’t have been possible. I wasn’t expecting much–’

He made a choking sound.

‘Oh, dear.’ She reached for her discarded cup of tea, brought an hour ago by the obsequious conductor. ‘Would you like some of this? And don’t misunderstand me; it was quite nice. Last night, I mean.’

Similarly, when Alistair and Olivia thought about their feelings for each other, it never felt quite…there to me, but more like a script I already knew. This kept my grade from going as high as it otherwise might have, considering the quality of the prose, but I’m still recommending Fool Me Twice: I don’t often get the intense reads I adore in such a well constructed form. B

Sincerely,

Willaful

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle