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REVIEW: How to Marry a Duke by Vicky Dreiling

Dear Ms. Dreiling:

I was curious about your book as it sounded like a fun historical romp. I like fun historical romps. I like books that don’t take themselves too seriously. This is not one of those books. This book featured unlikeable characters, a gimmicky setup, but was one of the best representations of the fantasy historical regency setting that seems to be a favorite within the genre.

how to marry a duke DrielingThe date is 1816 and our intrepid spinster heroine (Tessa) is attending a ball basking in the glow of the happiness exuded by her most recent and successful matchmaking attempt. At the same ball is our beleaguered hero who is attending the ball with the dual purpose of finding a bride and avoiding the debutantes. A conundrum, for sure.

Said beleaguered hero (Tristan, Duke of Shelbourne) seizes upon a genius idea. He approaches Tessa and presents a proposal to her. She can make him a match and he will give her a week to do it. The two have a private (the first of many) exchange in which Tristan gives Tessa a list of qualities he is looking for in a woman. He also adds this provision:

“There is one important quality I neglected to include”   He paused a moment as if assessing her.   “I should be able to detect a hint of…passion in the lady’s nature.”

Her jaw dropped.

He looked amused.   “Have I shocked you.”   (note, they were, just two pages earlier discussing his liasons with widows and adultery)

She tapped his paper.   “You said you want a respectable bride.”

“I do, but I plan to remain faithful and want a wife who will abandon her inhibitions,” he said.

She huffed.   “No, you want the impossible–a virtuous courtesan.”

“I want an angel in the ballroom and a temptress in…. private”

Tristan wants his bride to be smart and enjoyable and virtuous. Also a “temptress” in bed.   Oh and their deal is to be kept confidential. Chapter two ends with this:

“I want to keep our dealings quiet.   I’m weary of all the notoriety,” he said.

“The papers have made a jest of my honorable intentions.”

“I understand,” she said. “but I can’t promise secrecy when everyone is watching you.”

He let out a gusty sigh.   “No matter what I do I cannot avoid drawing attention.”

“I can make one promise to you,” she said, meeting his gaze.   “I will never reveal our conversations to another soul.”

Chapter three starts with Tristan arriving at Tessa’s home on her invitation where upon he finds 24 eligible brides and their mothers ensconced in Tessa’s home (her receiving room must be enormous to hold nearly fifty women). Tessa then declares to everyone that the Duke has retained her to find him a bride. Um, what happened to the “I will never reveal our conversations to another soul?”

Here is the gimmicky part: The 24 girls will be “courted” by Tristan and he’ll eliminate a few each week until he gives one a rose in a big rose ceremony at the end surrounded by his family, her family, and a dozen cameras. Oh wait, that’s the wrong show. Tristan will eliminate a few until he is betrothed to one and announces said betrothal at a big ball at the end, surrounded by his family, her family, and dozens of the ton looking on. Yes, this book is the Bachelor meets Regency England as defined by the romance genre.

I don’t find deceit or manipulation cute. I find it irritating at best, a fatal character flaw at worse but this was just glossed over as if she is doing this in his best interest. So instead of keeping his confidence and meeting her obligation, she forces him to court twenty four women over the course of several weeks. Nice and humiliating for him, not to mention the 24 women.

The first “test”?   The chits write an essay on why she wants to be the duke. Apparently the essay test was to for him to observe how they react in demanding situations and only one of them finished the essay so he says she passed. Tristan, however, is upset that the essays are so banal. Why is he even grading them if the content of the essay wasn’t the point of the essay test? Wouldn’t he just say:   “I’ve no need to read the essays. Only one of the chits passed.”

The text of the story doesn’t match with what is shown. And in that vein, let’s talk about Tessa as a matchmaker. She is the worst matchmaker of all time. It’s not like she is presented as a matchmaker by accident, and that her ineptness laughably leads to awesome results. No, she is proud of being a matchmaker. Her first thought when approached by Tristan is that this match could make her name. She thinks she is good at this but when news spreads to of her bachelorette scheme, Tessa belatedly recognizes that the duchess, Tristan’s mother, is humiliated because it is the mother’s role to find the wife. When the girls who are eliminated begin to spread malicious gossip, Tessa’s response again is of surprise. When one of the girls accepts a proposal from another man for whom she had a well known tender and the duke is humiliated, Tessa is surprised. She was sure that the girl wouldn’t accept another proposal. When the majority of the girls are vapid, cruel and uninteresting, isn’t she to blame as the matchmaker?

“If she had known these two were so horrid, she would never have invited them to participate in the courtship.   As she knocked on the next door, Tessa resolved to warn the Duke about them.”

Women are eliminated for not following the matchmaker’s directions.  This would be fine if she was running a school but she is trying to find the BEST PERSON TO MARRY THE DUKE, not the one who follows her instructions the best.

Maybe the point was that Tessa was deliberately sabotaging the list so she could catch the Duke for herself but she picked this slate just after meeting the Duke and there was no intimation that she had feelings of lust or anything for him. She wanted to make her name as a matchmaker.

Shouldn’t a matchmaker in society have an understanding of who she is dealing with? Shouldn’t she be astute about the inner workings of the ton, how gossip can spread, how it can be stifled? Shouldn’t her understanding of societal machinations be superior? Shouldn’t she be actively looking for people who actually MATCH? Instead of 24 random girls from society who look, superficially, to be a good spouse for the duke. I mean Tessa is like a pattern card for exactly how NOT to be a matchmaker. Tessa evinces so little insight into anyone and anything that there is no way I buy her as a successful matchmaker.
Further, wouldn’t her reputation have to be spotless? In fact, the characters drone on and on about reputations yet the two of them meet privately in her home frequently. Her response to his inquiries about the wiseness of their private meetings:

“I pay them twice the standard wages and hire more than strictly necessary, so they are not overburdened.”   She smiled.   “I treat them with respect, and in return they are devoted to me.   So you need not worry on my account.”

This is a shining example of the romancelandia fantasy historical.   It wants us to use the setting to provide conflict and color but it doesn’t abide by any of the constrictions of that time period unless it is convenient for the story.
There is some passing credence given to the mores of the times such as multiple references as how they should be careful with her reputation or how a matchmaking “career” is notorious and not really for a woman of her birth and station but of course, none of those mores are observed. Tessa’s butler dresses down Tristan and he takes it with good humor. Tessa is able to pass in and out of society without qualms and without censorship.   The private assignations continue. Her “career” (the word used repeatedly in the book) is discussed as if it should be an issue of pride instead of embarrassment. The debutantes and Tristan engage in frank discourse during one scene in which the girls get to question the duke and the first asks how many girls he has kissed. After one exchange, one of the gently bred ladies pumps her fist in the air in exultation.   Really?   At some point, I expected someone to burst out with “Who let the dogs out? Woop, Woop.”

We are supposed to think well of the heroine because she befriends spinsters. That’s her sole redeeming feature. She likes spinsters and wall flowers.

She’s distressed that he admits to knowing her better than any of the candidates. How can this be a surprise. She’s spent hours alone with him.   They talk.   He and the candidates play stupid games that she took a part in inventing.

Nothing really gelled for me in this book. I recall one page in which the heroine trots out a French phrase. Other than touche, I don’t remember there being even one other French phrase. What was the point of that?

“My mother confronted me about the barge after you left the drawing room,” he said, his voice rumbling.   “You took all the blame.”

“I made a promise to you, and I will not break it.” (What PROMISE?)

“You are loyal,” he whispered.

“To those I believe in.”   Je crois en toi.

I didn’t believe, or like, any of the characters in this story. I felt like it presented a historically unrealistic setting peopled with a heroine who couldn’t match two cards together let alone two people and a hero that was duller than dishwater. D

Best regards,

Jane

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

17 Comments

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    Jan 05, 2011 @ 12:30:54

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  2. GrowlyCub
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 12:36:43

    I picked this up last week at Borders and after 3 language whoppers on the first half page, one of which was ‘he’d rather eat dirt’ I put it back on the shelf.

    I personally feel insulted by all these gimmicky stories being passed off as historical romances. That’s not what I read historical romance for, it’s not what I want and it’s seemingly all that’s getting published these days.

    To say that I’m disappointed is not encompassing the deep seated antipathy I have against the writers and editors who are perpetrating this stuff on unsuspecting readers.

  3. Jayne
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 13:25:58

    Why doesn’t Tessa just have all 24 women line up and go down on the hero so he can test their …. passion?

  4. TKF
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 13:45:50

    Wow. Just Wow. Is what we’ve come to because publishers seem to think that everything has to be “high concept” (which so often, in historicals, seems to mean stupid gimmick)?

  5. Catherine
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 14:05:13

    I gave this one 4 stars, but all your gripes are true. Things were iffy for me in the beginning, but I ended up being sucked in.

    I felt that things were a bit clumsy in the relationship and that there wasn’t anything unique about the writing or the characters, but I still found it pleasant.

    It definitely wouldn’t be one I’d recommend for those that wanted a very period feel though.

  6. GrowlyCub
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 14:13:28

    @Catherine:

    I’m curious what made you decide it was better than C read which is the grade I’d associate with a ‘pleasant’ read with nothing ‘unique about the writing or the characters’ with an ‘iffy’ beginning, valid ‘gripes’ and lack of ‘period feel’?

  7. Catherine
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 17:11:46

    @GrowlyCub: My grading is just based on my enjoyment of it. To me a 3 star or C book is a take it or leave it book. I thought this one was better than that.

    For me just because an author isn’t unique doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the way they write. Yes, I have read many books with the same feel to the writing, but I didn’t think they were bad books.

    The beginning was iffy because I felt the attraction was clumsy and abrupt and I was turned off by The Bachelor aspect of it. I find contests like that rather skeezy. But I kept reading and found that the negatives were overshadowed.

    Also, I said that Jane’s gripes were valid. I didn’t mean that I had a gripe about the exact same things. A lack of period feel is not always something that bothers me.

  8. DM
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 17:48:34

    Hmm. Unless you left something out of your plot summary, the publisher forgot the crucial half of the high concept equation: an easily grasped premise wedded to a high stakes story.

  9. Bianca
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 17:55:24

    Great review. And, man, this book sounds just ridiculously terrible.

    @TKF: Yeah, it sucks. Frankly, there are too many novels today that have overly involved gimmicks/spy plots/what-the-heck-ever dominating the story to hide weak writing, under-developed characters and poor research.

    @GrowlyCub: Totally agree with you on the fact that this historical romance lite is what’s increasingly getting pub’d lately (why is that?). Very disheartening.

    In response, I’ve been turning more to straight historical fiction, but I miss some of the thick, meaty, well-researched older historical romances (Judith Ivory, et al). I guess that doesn’t sell anymore, though.

  10. Lynnd
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 19:24:07

    @Bianca: I think that there is a market for those meaty well-researched historical romances. I know I loved them and would like to see more of them.

    Thanks for the review Jane. I’ll skip this one. These “contest” books are just not my cuppa.

  11. Carly M.
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 21:22:52

    What a bummer. I read “The Bride Hunt Ball” a few years ago by Olivia Parker and it had the same “Bachelor” set up. I thought she pulled it off well because the book was taking romance tropes and lightly mocking them(the clumsy heroine, the evil stepmother) while still having characters you could enjoy. I had planned to pick this one up when I heard the plotline, but now I’m a little more cautious.

  12. Eileen
    Jan 06, 2011 @ 07:17:56

    Well, I’m really glad you reviewed this book. I just saw it in the bookstore yesterday, and I was considering buying it. I didn’t because I’m trying to switch to more e-books. I did write down the title and author to search for it for the Nook. Based on this review, I think I’ll spend my money on something else.

  13. Anonymoose
    Jan 06, 2011 @ 16:30:14

    I also disliked this book. I think what I hated most about it was how anti-woman it was.

    Tristan keeps saying he wants a lady in the ballroom and a whore in the bedchamber. The only reason I kept reading was because this was an obvious riff on pearl-clutching, and I wanted to see how the author was going to make him take that back and make him acceptable to me as a hero.

    Instead, the book presents all women except our poor, poor heroine as (pick at least one) mean, shy, slutty, or stupid.

    Here’s the thing: I think most women are fundamentally decent people, and it makes me really sad to have such a woman-hating book on the shelves. I read the whole book feeling sorry for the 24 girls who were asked to participate in the competition in public which makes it hard to back out, and given no chance to think about their answer. They all lost out on the chance of marriage for that season and possibly forever thus ruining their lives. Tristan throws a shitfit when one of them becomes engaged to someone else as if he owns them all because they participated.

    I was mad at the heroine for putting them there and at the hero for letting it happen. They berated the girls for behaving as if they were in competition when the two of them were responsible for setting them against each other.

    And at the end of the day the “lady in the ballroom whore in the bedchamber” crap gets reinforced as if this were a good standard and we all need to aspire to it.

    When you take into account how utterly incoherent character motivations were and how sloppy the writing was and how little sense it makes for a woman how has two million pounds to think nobody will want to marry her, D was a kind grade.

  14. Allie
    Jan 11, 2011 @ 09:51:55

    Was glad to tumble across your review. I had read on the book jacket that this was the author’s first book and then when I didn’t like the book, I was afraid that I was just being too critical of a first author. I found the book annoying – I don’t like The Bachelor, and the idea that something like this could occur in the book’s time period was unrealistic, and the book was in no way tongue in cheek. Tessa’s whole rant about matchmaker as her “occupation” also didn’t ring true – there was nothing else about her character that would fit the unorthodox or “blue-stocking” aspect to a woman of her class having an occupation. And the dowager duchess – she flip-flopped from the typical stern matriarch to a most understanding mother. I felt like the author just used whichever characteristic moved the plot along.

  15. yasmin
    Jan 12, 2011 @ 06:26:08

    ahh! …. you forgot the special way he proposed to her in the end ….. in front of the entire ton, her jumping into his arms, his twirling her around, kissing her forcefully, in front of the entire ton …. and not to forget the lame way he jilted the other two girls and his speech about them wanting love …………. forget about doing research, has the author ever even read a historical romance ?

    i kept rolling my eyes – there was not an hint of the time it was supposed to be based in ….. if you would remove all the titles, it would read as a contemporary romance …. though still a shabby one

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