REVIEW: What I Did For A Duke by Julie Anne Long
Dear Ms. Long:
I have had kind of an on-again, off-again relationship with your books. I adored Like No Other Lover but was pretty meh about The Perils of Pleasure. So when I saw What I Did For A Duke on NetGalley, I figured I'd give it a shot but had no particular expectations about the book (nor risks, thanks to the genius that is NetGalley). Which may be why I was swept off my feet so thoroughly by Genevieve and Alex, who were similarly surprised by the strength and depth of their feelings for one another. Like the lovers themselves, this book, What I Did For A Duke, was a passionate, witty, emotionally satisfying surprise.
Genevieve Eversea has always been certain that she would marry her best friend, Lord Harry Osborne, and that her forever happiness would be secure. So when he informs her, at the beginning of one of her family's weekend house parties, that he intends to propose to their mutual friend, Millicent, Genevieve is completely unprepared for the crushing sense of loss and confusion she must cope with in the midst of this social gathering. To make it worse, no one, it seems, can see that something is drastically amiss with Genevieve, which is likely due to her habit of holding herself in tight control, especially as compared to her passionate, beautiful sister, Olivia, next to whom Genevieve seems much more serious and practical.
Except that Alexander Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge, can see what everyone else cannot, namely that Genevieve has suffered some terrible emotional blow and that said blow seems to have come from the direction of the affable, handsome Harry Osborne. Of course, Alex is paying the closest possible attention to Genevieve because she is his target of revenge against her brother Ian, who very recently cuckolded Alex and precipitated the end of his engagement to a lovely but apparently faithless woman. But in paying the closest possible attention to this woman virtually half his age, Alex is struck by something unexpected: Genevieve is not at all who others seem to believe she is. And in that moment of insight he realizes something even more astounding: he likes Miss Genevieve Eversea and is strongly attracted to her:
In truth, his eyes were on the stairs. He waited with the patience of a cat near a mouse hole for Genevieve Eversea to arrive.
He almost didn't recognize her when she did appear.
Her dress was a glossy silk of midnight blue, cut very low, and the "sleeves" – really scraps of net – clung to her pale, flawless shoulders, as though she'd tumbled down through clouds to get here and brought a few shreds of sky with her.
Her neck was long. Her collarbone had that smooth pristine temptation of a bank of new-fallen snow. It was interrupted only by a drop of a blue stone on a chain that pointed directly at quite confident cleavage, as if the owner knew full well it was splendid and was accustomed to exposing it. Her sleek dark hair was dressed up high and away from her face, and tiny diamanté sparks were scattered through in it. Her face beneath it was revealed in delicate simplicity. A smooth, pale, high forehead, etched cheekbones. Elegant as Wedgwood, set off by that dark, dark hair and those vivid eyes.
He wasn't precisely . . . nonplussed. Still, this particular vision of Genevieve Eversea required reconciling with the quiet girl in the morning dress, the moor pony with the determined gait. As though they were not quite the same thing, or were perhaps variations of the same thing, like verb tenses. He felt a bit like a boy who needed to erase his morning lessons and begin again.
There are many images in this description that play again and again throughout the book. Genevieve and her passion for Alex are compared to celestial objects, often in conjunction with fire imagery (frex the height of the flames in the fireplace are a good gauge of Genevieve's desire). Colors play an important role in properly understanding emotional undercurrents and true feelings – at one point Alex sends Genevieve an enormous "profusion of roses, the heads of which were nearly as pulsatingly crimson and large as actual hearts," a perfect match for the "urn stuffed full of astonishing flowers in a profusion of oranges and crimsons" Genevieve has "invented" in her embroidery (and which her mother mistakes for flowers her sister Olivia has received). And the detail in which Alex renders Genevieve as she walks down the stairs parallels Genevieve's own love of art and the ongoing exchange (and eventual inside joke) she has with Alex on the differences between Veronese, Botticelli and Titian's portrayals of Venus and Mars:
"As a young man touring the Continent, I once looked at length at a painting called Venus and Mars by an Italian painter called Veronese. Do you know it? Venus is nude as the day she was born, and Mars is entirely clothed and down on his knees in front of her, and it looks as though Mars is about to give her a pleasuring. And there are cherubs hanging about. I looked at it for quite some time."
. . .
"Do you . . . know of a painter called Boticelli?" She sounded tentative.
"I do, in fact. But vaguely."
"I think he isn't rated highly enough. I enjoy his grace of line, the light infusing his subjects."
Moncrieffe knew a subtle thrill. He'd thrown out a temptation, a subtle invitation. She'd recognized it and taken it up. "And I have seen his Venus and Mars," he added. "Ironically, in it Venus is entirely clothed and Mars, the poor bastard, is sprawled looking as though she's just had her way with him and he's spent."
The subject of passion, and even more how it should render us "spent," is a subject in which Genevieve has had very little experience, but about which she finds her curiosity, well, inflamed. And Alex has lit the match. For example, early on Genevieve learns the difference between the kiss on the hand that Harry once offered her (and that she has cherished since as the height of passion) and a real kiss between a man and a woman:
"A proper kiss, Miss Eversea, should turn you inside out. It should . . . touch places in you that you didn't know existed, set them ablaze, until your entire being is hungry and wild. It should . . . hold a moment, I want to explain this as clearly as possible . . ." He tipped his head back and paused to consider, as though he were envisioning this and wanted to relate every detail correctly. "It should slice right down through you like a cutlass with a pleasure so devastating it's very nearly pain … It should make you do battle for control of your senses and your will. It should make you want to do things you'd never dreamed you'd want to do, and in that moment all of those things will make perfect sense. And it should herald, or at least promise, the most intense physical pleasure you've ever known, regardless of whether that promise is ever, ever fulfilled. It should, in fact . . . " he paused for effect " . . . haunt you for the rest of your life."
When I think about what happens in the book, the answer is both very much and very little. Very much occurs inside Genevieve, who is initially so overwhelmed at Harry’s news that she walks around in a fog, attempting to evade the very persistent and obtrusive Moncrieffe. And quite a bit happens around Genevieve and Moncrieffe, although it is the stuff of amusing, indulgent house parties, reminiscent of Like No Other Lover, for example. But in another sense, very little happens outside what is going on between Genevieve and Moncrieffe, who become closer once her secret is revealed and Moncrieffe proposes a neat little scheme by which to make Harry jealous. That scheme creates a perceived joint interest that turns, secondarily, into the shared pursuit of Genevieve’s education in passion, which Alex also proposes, and which, despite her best intentions, Genevieve cannot resist, even as she yearns for Harry’s love.
Consequently, the book develops a rhythm between socially restrained days and physically unrestrained nights, and as both Alex and Genevieve begin to yearn for the night (especially Genevieve, whose point of view much of the novel follows), so did I, because the it seems that is when everything real in the book occurs: Venus and Mars, pleasure and satiation, the passion of the color red (and Mars being the red planet, of course), the blazing fire, clandestine meetings after midnight, unbound hair and unbuttoned waistcoats, all the intimacies of mutually discovered and indulged passion, and the way that passion both reveals and is revealed by the combustible but compatible personalities of the two protagonists.
What I Did For A Duke is a probably a novel best described with its own prose, because so much of its pleasure is in the wit and the emotional resonance of Alex and Genevieve's interactions and reactions to each other (Jane has posted a wonderful example at Goodreads). In a very real way, Genevieve is being seduced by Alex – by his carnality and the depth of his experience. But she is also being seduced by the part of herself she has never understood why or how to express:
He raised his brows, waiting with infinite, infinite, downright evil patience, unruffled. His eyes were dark and deep, as reflective in the sunlight as the polished toes of his boots. Like a body of water, where one couldn't tell whether you could wade safely through or step in and be swallowed whole by depth. She had the strangest sense he could absorb anything with those eyes and reflect back the same irony: a glare, a smile, a tragedy, a comedy.
But there was something about him . . . She was tempted to wade in. Just a little. It was the same temptation she'd succumbed to when he'd discussed-‘just as deliberately-‘Venus and Mars. Because he wasn't wrong. Because he was honest, and she liked it. Because he was relentless, and she admired it. Because she half hated him, but he didn't bore her.
Because he spoke to her the way no one else had ever spoken to her, which meant he saw her in a way no one else saw her.
Yes, this is an old Romance trope: the big, bad, dark duke who introduces and instructs the young, innocent heroine in passion and love. And the book is a celebration of that grand passion and the “luminous” wonder of its surprise and its bloom. But Long plays with the trope just enough to make the reader see it differently, too (since so much in this novel is about double meanings and seeing familiar things in a new way). Alex has the requisite bad reputation, with the obligatory rumor that he murdered his first wife and kills men for fun, but the truth is more interesting. He is a a jaded gambler who claims he never loses and a man who enjoys getting revenge and who has learned that trading on his reputation can give him the kind of solitude and power he enjoys. But he is not shut down emotionally or irrationally and recklessly cruel, as so many of these hero-types are.
Genevieve is young and somewhat innocent, but she is not learning something completely new with Alex; she is merely allowing herself to express and channel what she has always protected and constrained in herself. Further, she is incredibly smart and stubborn, a young woman with strong ideas about how life should work and the focus to achieve what she envisions. And as Genevieve and Alex become closer, the revenge plot that had initiated their meeting is abandoned, leaving room for a much more interesting conflict to arise, which I will not reveal here to avoid spoilers, but which readers will most likely have guessed far before Alex or Genevieve had a clue (hint: it involves Harry), but still works quite well in escalating the emotional tension. And despite my initial qualms about the age difference between Alex and Genevieve, I soon came around to all the reasons these two were perfect for each other and a great match, in both the romantic and competitive senses of the word.
When things in this novel work, there is a virtual conflagration of emotions and images and words – not a full realization of the kiss Alex describes to Genevieve, but a good facsimile. What did not really work for me were all the reminders that What I Did For A Duke is part of a series and therefore other characters whose books are written and unwritten need a certain level of attention in the text, even when their presence detracted from what I had hoped would be a substantially longer epilogue. The other thing I find with Long's prose is that its floridity does not always work for me, and there were passages in this book that felt a bit overwritten to me (along with a few scenes that seemed somewhat gratuitous, like a scene of blind man's bluff that struck me as intended to illustrate the difference between Harry and Alex that was already clearly visible). Overall, though, What I Did For A Duke was a real pleasure to read. A-
~Janet aka Robin