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REVIEW: At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran

Dear Ms. Duran—

As I read At Your Pleasure, I wondered if you will ever write a book I dislike. It seems unlikely. I love three of the books you’ve written and the two I don’t love—A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal and Wicked Becomes You—I like tremendously. I am enamored of your use of language, your deftness of plots, the complexity of your lovers’ relationships, and the crackling chemistry in your love scenes. In short, I am a big fan.

At Your Pleasure Meredith DuranSo, it shouldn’t surprise anyone I think At Your Pleasure is a very good book. Its hero, Adrian, might be my favorite of all your heroes—although I am terribly partial to Phin (from Written on Your Skin) and Julian (from The Duke of Shadows.) The historical context of the novel, the year 1715, a year after the coronation of the Hanoverian King George, is an unusual and fascinating one. So often the conflict between lovers centers around class but in this book, the line that divides Adrian and Nora, the heroine, is that of religion.

In 1715, in England, Catholics, even Catholic aristocrats, lived under restrictive laws. There were limits on the right to own and inherit property. Catholics paid special taxes, couldn’t have their children educated in Catholic schools, worship openly, or vote. The Settlement Act of 1701 forbad any Catholic or anyone married to a Catholic from sitting on the throne. At the same time, a significant number of the Tory peerage, most of whom were not Catholic, wanted to see a Scottish Catholic, James Stuart, on the throne rather than the current king, German born George I. It was a fraught time rife with tenuous political alliances.

Your heroine, Nora, the widowed Marchioness of Towe, is a Colville and her family is fiercely Tory. The Colvilles have been punished for their abiding loyalty to the Stuart King. Her father, now stripped of his titles and most of his wealth and property, is hiding out in France, plotting with those who would overthrow the current king. Her brother, David, is on the run, hiding in France and then in England, determined, at any cost, to implement his father’s dreams. Nora is the only one of her family living openly in England, in the family seat of Hodderby. Nora doesn’t necessarily share the sentiments of the men in her family but she is deeply loyal to her brother and will do whatever he asks of her, no matter how much it risks her happiness and/or safety. One of the most deadly things David has done is fill the wine casks in the cellars of Hodderby with volatile gunpowder which he plans to use in the upcoming Jacobite rebellion. Nora can tell no one of her brother’s plans—he’s a traitor to the crown—and she lives each day in trepidation, afraid the goals of her father and brother will destroy not only her, but Hodderby which she alone loves.

One night, as Nora readies for bed, a party of riders from the King arrives, led by Adrian Ferrers, the Earl of Rivenham. Rivenham, a favored Whig advisor to King George, carries a Writ of Parliament allowing him and his men unfettered access to Hodderby. Adrian has the right to stay as long as he pleases, command all who live there, and search the house freely. His ultimate goal is to flush out David Colville who will then be taken to the Tower and tried for his traitorous crimes. Adrian Ferrers loathes David Colville for more than just the latter’s politics. Adrian still feels the wound on his shoulder given to him, eight years ago, by David on the night David almost killed Adrian for the crime of loving Nora.

Nora, David, and Adrian grew up together—Rivenham land abuts that of the Colvilles. The Rivenhams, however, are a Catholic family and the Colvilles are of the Church of England. Adrian and Nora fell in love when they were young and both paid a terrible price for doing so. Adrian was beaten within an inch of his life by David, and shipped, by his family, to France to escape the wrath of the then powerful Colvilles. Nora was forced by her family to marry a cruel man in order to cover up her affair with Adrian. Adrian, when he returned to from France to England, was determined, at all costs, to protect his family from the sort of violence inflicted upon him by the Colvilles and their like. He renounced Catholicism, and used his charm, intellect, and will to become a powerful man in the English Court. His Catholic background makes him a target of many in the Court—if Adrian captures David, a Tory Jacobite traitor, and sees him hung, Adrian will augment his political power in the Court.

Nora is devastated to encounter Adrian again. For years, after she was married and he’d returned to England, she would see him at Court, and he never once spoke to her. She believes he hates her and, when she realizes he’s come to Hodderby to destroy her family, she tells herself she hates him too. When Adrian installs himself at Hodderby, he initially treats her cruelly, and she, terrified he will discover all she is doing for her brother, responds with defiance. Adrian is sure Nora knows the whereabouts of David and he pushes her hard, even torturing her with sleep deprivation. As the days pass, though, and Nora and Adrian begin to talk about their past which is full of tragedy and unshared secrets, their relationship shifts. They wend their way from enmity to something else, full of danger and desire. There seems no possible way they could ever find happiness together and yet, the longer Adrian is at Hodderby, the more he and Nora are drawn to one another.

I liked the relationship between Adrian and Nora. Adrian is a great hero—he’s as alpha as he needs to be but that doesn’t keep him from caring deeply and movingly for Nora. As he lives with her and confronts the truth he fears—he’s never stopped loving her—he decides to do whatever he must to keep her safe.

Persuasion would not sway her. Let her believe as she liked; it would make no difference to his course. Though she did not know it yet, a private battle had begun between them. To win it, he would use every weapon at his disposal, of brain and body both. Her injured feelings, her brother’s life—none of it signified if victory ensured her survival. He would save her from David Colville’s folly—no matter what it took.

Nora is harder to feel for. She’s so heedlessly loyal to her brother it’s excruciating to watch her. David has not only filled the house she lives in—and he’s abandoned care of—with deadly gunpowder, he’s scheming to marry Nora to yet another man who doesn’t love her, all to the aim of furthering David’s political goals. Nora’s biggest enemy is herself. Whether she is fighting against feeling the passion Adrian’s touch arouses in her or forcing herself to risk Hodderby and all who live there simply because David tells her she must, she makes choices hard to sympathize with. That said, she’s a woman in a time when women were subservient to the will of men. She watched both her sister and her mother die in childbirth; her brother and father have never seen her as their peer despite all they have had her do for them. She truly loved Adrian and, when she lost him, she also lost her freedom, illusory as it may have been. I found myself forgiving her foolish choices because I felt she’d lost the ability to value herself. Even when Adrian makes it clear he desires her, she doesn’t think it says anything about her charms.

She knew now that a man’s need for a woman was no special compliment. Men had endless needs. Her father, her brother, her late husband—all of them impatiently had required her attention day after day, year after year. She had grown wise enough not to be flattered by need. She had learned to be grateful, instead, for silence and indifference.

When she realizes she still loves Adrian, the realization fills her with sorrow. She thinks,

There was no use in longing for what she could not have. She would never be a man. Never travel the world. Never speak freely, with laughter, to those not her equal. She would never have him. Or a child.

Nora can’t see her way to any sort of joy so it is left to Adrian to force it upon her. And he does. He takes her to bed and she is able to respond only because he gives her no other choice.

Here was what she had forgotten: true desire. Unbearable, exquisite. No room for fear or conscience. Wanting, needing, to feel his mastery: be devoured, laid bare, filled, left no say in it.

Adrian not only loves Nora, he makes her believe she is worth loving. As he does so, surrounded by men who would like to see him fall, trying to figure out how to take David to the Tower without destroying Nora, the love between Adrian and Nora is terrifying. But, as you so eloquently write,

What is love but a great rebellion against caution and sense?

When I finished this book, I thought for a long time about all the issues it raised—the horrible power of religious zeal, the disenfranchisement of women throughout the centuries, the confines of familial love, the harrowing choices people make in order to survive. I flipped back through the pages and re-read sentences I loved—ones like:

Adrian had never felt Him save in His absence.

Otherwise she excelled in keeping occupied at endeavors too feminine to allow his company.

He meant to follow her down, but the vision she made arrested him: hair tousled, slipping from its pins; sober dark skirts knocked over her knees to reveal embroidered stockings and slim legs.

A week later, I began to write this review and as I did so, I thought not so much about the weighty issues underpinning your plot or the loveliness of your prose. Instead, I thought about Adrian and Nora and how much I cared for their story. I thought about how, yet again, you’d written a book I loved. I give it an A-.

Thank you,

Dabney

 

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I loved romances when, back in the mid 70's, in junior high, I read every Barbara Cartland novel I could check out from the library. Then, thanks to a savvy babysitter, I got my hands on the hot stuff. To this day I can remember how astonishingly steamy I found Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. I abandoned romance when I went to college and didn't pick one up again until 2007 when I got my first Kindle. Since then, I’ve read countless romances; loved many, liked more, hated some. Most of what I read is historical and contemporary romance, but I’m open to almost any genre. I like my books to have sizzle, wit, and plots that make sense. I’d take sexy over sweet any day. I’m a sucker for smart heroes and smart-mouthed heroines. When not reading or writing about reading, or wishing I could rule the world, I'm meddling in the lives of my kids--I have four, ages 17 to 21--, managing my husband's practice, doing bossy volunteer work, and hanging out with Dr. Feelgood.

18 Comments

  1. Mandi
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 06:49:17

    I really loved this book. Meredith Duran’s voice always impresses me but this one is by far my favorite. With the setting, and the religious tension – and Nora stuck between her brother and Adrian..so good. And Adrian – I love how he was the bad guy in a way and the good guy. And story became so sensual after awhile. So good.

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  2. cbackson
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 10:14:47

    Oh MAN. I really want to read this. I’m from a fairly prominent recusant family (although ironically, I’m now Anglican by choice) and I am fascinated by this historical conflict.

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  3. Karenmc
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 13:09:40

    @cbackson: There were recusants in my family tree, so I’m with you on that. I also want to read it because Meredith is a brilliant writer. My only concern is that yet another Duran book will make me cry.

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  4. Dabney
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 14:49:05

    @Karenmc: It did not make me cry. It did make me thankful to live in our modern world.

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  5. Karenmc
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 17:33:27

    @Dabney: I’m really thankful to live in the modern world, too (especially for allergy meds and joint replacements). I was talking about the emotionally wrenching moments contained in what, to me, are the best books (Duran, Ivory, Gaffney, etc.) :)

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  6. SonomaLass
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 21:53:42

    I am saving this one for when I think I can handle it — Duran at her best is gut-wrenching, and this sounds like it’s right up there. I agree with you, Dabney, that even the books of hers that I don’t LOVE were good reads. She’s a fine writer.

    Thanks for this review. It helps me know what frame of mind I need to be in when I read this book. It also calls to mind some of my favorite castle ruins in Scotland — places that were “Cromwelled” and have great scars on the remaining stonework where Catholic religious imagery was blasted off.

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  7. Jennie
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 23:36:38

    I liked this book – I gave it a B+ – but at the same time I had some issues with it. For one thing, I don’t really like it when the h/h are set up as adversaries for a major part of the book. I wonder if my preferences have changed, because I almost feel like I prefer more external conflict to internal conflict at this point (internal conflict was my preference in romance for a long time). Or at least, I don’t like external conflict that is just the h/h bickering (unless it’s really witty), and I don’t really like it when, as in this book, the conflict is deep and bitter and seemingly insurmountable. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it can make me uncomfortable and…weary in a way, like, “oh, geez, we’re going to have to slog through all THIS before we can get to some understanding?”

    The other (related) issue is that I’m hyper-sensitive to the disposition of h/h conflicts. That is to say, I hate for the hero to win too much or to always be right. (I may be disposed to favor heroines in general, but it’s also that in probably 95% of the romances I’ve read, when there was a h/h centered around politics or some other big issue, the hero was on the right side. So I just got tired of that dynamic a long time ago.)

    In this book, the heroine did win some pretty big battles of will with the hero, and I appreciated that. But he is definitely in the right re the political conflict; she is shown to be motivated by loyalty to those who don’t deserve her, whereas he has a clear-eyed take on the situation.

    Now, to be totally clear, almost all of the above has to do with my personal preferences and really isn’t a commentary on the worth of the book. Ultimately, I did give it a B+, because I liked the characters, I LOVE Duran’s writing (and writing, as always, counts a lot with me), and I thought the story was by and large well plotted.

    I did have an issue with some of the hero’s actions in the middle of the book; he declines to torture her to get information out of her but goes on to mistreat her in a way that I thought was at least as bad, if not worse. I actually found it painful to read, and I guess it made me uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure if as a reader I was supposed to think the hero was a good guy for refusing to resort to torture, because I really couldn’t give him much credit there.

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  8. Megan
    Mar 27, 2012 @ 13:49:40

    Here’s REALLY gets me about this book. How can you look at that cover and not see this famous movie dress?

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_Sj2CPzOoMzQ/TCiVrrUkEmI/AAAAAAAAGJc/eTJguFNRMgw/s1600/gigi2.jpeg

    Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled insightful commentary on romance novels. It’s just been nagging me ever since I first saw the cover image.

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  9. etv13
    Mar 28, 2012 @ 16:48:03

    The cover: seriously, does anything about that cover say 1715? It’s just atrocious. The best thing that can be said for it is that the model and the heroine both have black hair.

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  10. Christine
    Apr 02, 2012 @ 11:23:36

    I just finished this and as always Duran’s writing is excellent. She created an interesting and memorable hero but possibly one of the most annoying heroines I have ever read. Nora began well enough and I definitely sympathized with her. At the beginning of the book I was 100% on her side as the proud but mistreated heroine. As the book progressed my distaste for her grew. She was the worst kind of old school heroine martyring herself for a family who did nothing but mistreat her (and the hero) and a cause SHE DID NOT BELIEVE IN. So much of what was likeable about Nora was her devotion to the family’s estate and the people on it. We are told over and over how concerned she is for them and how much she cares for them yet when it mattered she shows no concern for them and a reckless disregard for their lives. The idea that she would collude with her feckless brother to put a bomb (the gunpowder) in their home that could be detonated by carelessness or at her brother’s whim showed she had no care for the estate or the people. Furthermore it showed to me she had no common sense as all she knew from the brother was recklessness and bad decisions. When she had the cook drug Adrian and his men, she put the whole household in danger, again for the sole benefit of her brother and his plans. Any group not headed by Adrian would not only have retaliated against her but the entire household. Over and over Nora mutely accepts the brother and father’s horrible decisions and does not even stand up to the cousin directly when he tries to run roughshod over her. her plan is to sneak off to one of the tenants (endangering those who are so loyal they would hide her, even from the King’s men). The only time she ever shows any gumption is to stand up to the one person Adrian, who ever tries to do anything to help her. (I’m not saying he is a saint through all this as people have pointed out above, but he is the only person with any interest in doing what Nora wants or giving her what she wishes.) By the farcical end where Adrian, who has risked everything including his estates and his family to help Nora and the brother who had blown up his own estate (but in romance novel fantasy miraculously no one was hurt or injured) and tortured the hero years ago, arranges Nora’s brother’s escape from prison (where he deserved to rot) my eyes were rolling back into my head. The final scene with Nora and her psychopathic brother where he apparently leaves on good terms with her now that Adrian and Nora have her family’s estates was beyond ridiculous. All I kept thinking in regards to Adrian during the last part of the book was, “You poor schmuck.” What a waste of what could have been a phenomenal couple and story through bad character development and illogical plotting (the former recusant from the Catholic family who was considered so low he was beaten by Nora’s family when wanting to marry her but rises to be one of the most powerful pro Georgian supporters in less than six years?)

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  11. etv13
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 00:05:06

    @Christine: I completely agree, except that I would say I felt sorry for Nora, but couldn’t really sympathize. I think the fundamental problem with Nora’s characterization comes from the lack of characterization of her brother; he’s a cardboard sexist idiot, so there’s nothing about him that justifies Nora’s feeling torn between her loyalty to him and her love for Adrian or her regard for her people. We’re told that he was a friend of Adrian at one point, and that he brought laughter and affection into Nora’s life, but we’re never actually shown any of that, and it seems frankly inconsistent with what we are shown, which is that he regards Nora purely as an instrument to be used to further his own interests, without any consideration of her safety or happiness. (Also, Susanna Kearsley can almost make me feel some sympathy for Jacobites, and maybe Duran could if she really tried, but honestly, trying to get some Stuart on the throne in the eighteenth century just seems like such an irredeemably STUPID cause. Guess I really am a Whig at heart.)

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  12. etv13
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 00:10:55

    ETA: Nora is a Dowager Marchioness in her late twenties, with dower rights (at a minimum, a life interest in a third of all the land her late husband owned) and there should be no way on God’s green earth her brother could force her to make a second marriage against her will, especially given that he’s a wanted man.

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  13. Christine
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 12:16:42

    etv13- you hit the nail on the head with this statement ‘I think the fundamental problem with Nora’s characterization comes from the lack of characterization of her brother; he’s a cardboard sexist idiot, so there’s nothing about him that justifies Nora’s feeling torn between her loyalty to him and her love for Adrian or her regard for her people.’

    I cannot wrap my head around why Nora is so loyal to him? He’s a really weak and despicable character. Apart from him slipping her some bread and “joking” with her in years past I can’t identify one good thing he has done.

    Your point about her being a Dowager Marchioness is also an excellent one as I have seen so many people say how “historically accurate” she is and a “product of her time” but in my opinion she is just a weak dud.

    As far as Jacobites go, I’ve enjoyed a lot of stories with Jacobite heroes and heroines. There is something about those “lost causes” that works in Romances so I don’t hold that against it at all. In fact it would have made 100% more sense if Nora was a Jacobite and passionate to the cause. Having her not be a supporter just made it even crazier how she was always martyring herself to the brother’s cause.

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  14. Annie
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 10:20:27

    I really loved this book. Are there any similar books out there like this? Ive read all of duran already :)

    As to noras loyalty, ill say that sometimes family is family and though u secretly hope for them to see the right if way, u cant help but support them simply because theyre family. Thats how i saw it. Also, she was ***spoiler*** pregnant and he helped her while her father waa starving her. How can she forget the good and not be loyal to it when there was so much cruelty around her? And how can she not blame Adrian and fight him because to her he was the source of all her misery? Although i will admit, i hate it when the heroine fights no one but the hero. nora was also under alot of misunderstandings
    She was a lonesome character in which case how good r her titles? Shes a lone woman with no connections., so i can understand why it was easy to force/manipulate her.

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  15. Dabney
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 10:28:30

    @Annie: You might like Elizabeth Essex. My favorite of hers is A Sense of Sin. I also very much like The Danger of Desire. Joanna Bourne’s books have the depth of Duran’s as well. And, if you’ve never read it, you might try Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm.

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  16. Annie
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 14:47:50

    Thanks for the recs. not really a fan of elizabeth essx, unfortunately. Johanna Bourne i’ve actually already read and same goes for Laura Kinsale. flowers from the Storm was in fact my fav.

    Do u have any other recs? I dont like fluff romance novels. I like them dark and edge and i feel like ive run out of reading material. Ive read everything of anne stuarts as well, from the oldies to the newer ones.

    Im must simply lost as to what i should read now…

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  17. Dabney
    Jul 02, 2012 @ 18:14:34

    @Annie: Hmmmm….
    Anna Campbell: Untouched
    Anne Mallory: Three Nights of Sin, Seven Secrets of Seduction, One Night Is Never Enough
    Christine Wells: Wicked Little Game
    Elizabeth Hoyt: The Raven Prince
    Hope Tarr: Vanquished
    Jennifer Ashley: Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie
    Jo Goodman: The Price of Desire
    Kris Kennedy: The Irish Warrior
    Madeline Hunter: Secrets of Surrender, The Sins of Lord Easterbrook
    Melody Thomas: A Match Made in Scandal
    Silvia Violet: A Carnal Agreement
    Sophie Jordan: One Night With You
    T. J. Bennett: The Legacy, The Promise
    Tessa Dare: Goddess of the Hunt
    Tracy Anne Warren: My Fair Mistress: A Novel
    Victoria Dahl: A Rake’s Guide to Pleasure

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  18. At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran | the passionate reader
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 12:40:02

    […] Ms. Duran— As I read At Your Pleasure, I wondered if you will ever write a book I dislike. It seems unlikely. I love three of the books […]

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