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REVIEW: Wicked Becomes You by Meredith Duran

wicked becomes you  by Meredith DuranDear Ms. Duran,

Since publishing your first romance in 2008, you have quickly become one of my favorite and most dependable authors; I have not given any of your first three books a grade lower than an A-. So I looked forward to Wicked Becomes You with a fair amount of anticipation.

The book opens in 1886 with a prologue that takes place at the funeral of Richard Maudsley; Richard had been stabbed after venturing into a casino on a lark. His best friend, Alex, feels guilty because he had refused to accompany Richard; Alex is an aristocrat but on his way to being a self-made businessman  (he is a younger son)  and he is dedicated to his work. He also feels guilty because before Richard died, the two men had quarreled over Richard’s sister, Gwen; Richard was suspicious of Alex’s attraction to Gwen. At the funeral, Alex returns Richard’s ring to Gwen, a precious remembrance of her last living family member (her parents are already dead).

Gwen was the golden girl of her family; her parents, who had climbed up socially from a background in trade, had hopes that Gwen would make a brilliant marriage. Standing with Gwen in the chapel, Alex remembers his promise to Richard that he would see Gwen settled. It’s a promise that he has some ambivalence about, but all the same  he feels obligated to try.

The action then moves forward four years, to another church; it’s Gwen’s wedding day and she’s about to get jilted – this time at the altar – for the second time. Alex is there to witness her humiliation (along with the rest of the ton, most of whom regard Gwen with fondness because she’s just so darn nice). Alex generally stays out of London; his business concerns take him around the world, and he’s only stopped in to see his older brother, the Earl of Weston, to find out why he sold a piece of family property. Alex doesn’t care about the property, but he does care about his family, and he cannot resist his twin sisters’ pleas to get to the bottom of the sale; he suspects the earl may be having money problems. So it’s only chance that Alex is there in the pew when Gwen’s prospective groom literally bolts, and also that he’s at Gwen’s home later participating in  a powwow to determine What To Do About Poor Gwen, while the lady herself is upstairs in bed, distraught and enraged.

Gwen had not loved her fiance, Thomas, but she had more or less believed his assurances that he loved her; she knew he needed her money, at least. Gwen longs for a family of her own; at a young age her parents had sent her to live with the aristocratic but slightly-down-at-heel Beechams, in the hopes of giving her some town polish. Now her parents and only sibling are dead, and the people she’s lived with for most of her life, while not particularly unkind or abusive, are nothing but paid guardians. Lying in her bed,  Gwen feels herself break free; she realizes that all her attempts to be good and proper and perfect have earned her nothing but the degradation of being jilted twice and the pity of the ton, and she’s still as alone as ever. She resolves that since no good has come from being good, she’s going to try being bad.

Writing this out, Gwen’s resolution strikes me as childish and silly, but you never make it feel that way in the story – I empathized with Gwen enormously and actually mentally cheered for her when she essentially said, “screw ‘em” and decided that she would do what she wanted to from there on out.

One thing she wants, she decides, is to get back her brother’s ring, which she had given to Thomas as a token of affection. But Thomas has apparently fled to Paris, and so Gwen determines that she will follow him there, demand her ring back, and give Thomas a piece of her mind while she’s at it. To achieve this goal, she has to face up to the disapproval of those concerned about her – namely her foster parents and Alex’s twin sisters, Caroline and Belinda, who are her closest friends. Alex views the “new” Gwen with some confusion which he masks with an infuriating, condescending amusement, as when he considers Gwen’s slightly manic behavior after the jilting:

Really, somebody needed to cast a trophy for her. In Recognition of Her Tireless Dedication to Utterly Groundless Good Cheer.

Alex and Gwen meet up again in Paris; she’s chasing Thomas and he’s trying to find out more about Rollo Barrington, the mysterious stranger who has purchased the family property that Alex is trying to buy back. Alex witnesses Gwen’s nascent attempts at being daring, and they clash a bit over their differing views on responsibility, obligation and freedom.

From Paris, the book turns into a sort of road  story. I generally really like road  romances (and they seem to be one of the more popular romance plot conventions), but I did have some issues with this portion of the book. Alex accepts Gwen’s help in unraveling what is going on with Rollo Barrington (after Barrington takes a shine to Gwen). Alex’s willingness to use Gwen in this manner struck me as contrived and not true to his character. Much as he tries to hide it, Alex is a caretaker, and he takes his duty to Gwen seriously. It doesn’t make sense, exactly, that he would go from wanting to protect Gwen and watch over her to using her as bait in a situation that he senses is not entirely safe.

Honestly, the entire subplot involving  Barrington and his buying up of property felt muddled and a bit pointless. It only really served as a device to bring Alex and Gwen together (and allow Gwen to play Alex’s mistress, which gave them much more freedom to be alone together than they otherwise would’ve had). That’s okay, but I felt that maybe more time was spent on the subplot than needed to be spent on something that had no real significance to the story otherwise. I also felt that the resolution was anti-climatic and a bit confusing.

I like the humor in your writing, which is especially evident  from Gwen as she begins to break free of the bonds of perfection. Here, musing on her commitment to knit sweaters for an orphanage:

Ten sweaters in a month!

Gwen was not a loom!

And then there is her indignant letter to her erstwhile fiance, which includes uncharacteristic (up to this point) digs at his lack of funds:

Good luck with the roof at Pennington Grange, by the way. I will hope it does not rain too much this season.

I liked Gwen a lot – she is a bit unformed at the start of the book, having been trained to be good and virtuous and unobjectionable, which along with her great fortune, is expected to net her an aristocratic husband. She doesn’t really know herself, and in the course of the book she grows up and finds some balance between virtue and authenticity.

Alex is an appealing if not entirely original hero – he’s a younger son of an aristrocratic family, chafing under the weight of expectation that come with his position. His attitude is given psychological depth by the circumstances of his youth; he had been afflicted with terrible childhood asthma, which eventually led his parents to banish him alone to a remote country house, so as to avoid any excitement that might trigger an attack. Alex still harbors a great deal of resentment towards his dead parents for the stifling restrictions they placed on him as a child and towards his siblings, for continuing to treat him as fragile although he has long since proved that he is anything but. I thought this aspect of the story was quite intriguing; I wish that it had been developed a touch more. Perhaps Alex needed to have a discussion with his brother and sisters to bring some closure to issues that honestly did seem to be having a continuing psychological effect on him as an adult.

There has always been an unspoken attraction between Gwen and Alex; as well, they share the connection of loving and mourning Richard. The conflict between the two of them is no less poignant for being rather basic: Alex’s lonely childhood makes him wary of connections, whereas Gwen’s makes her long for them. Alex has farther to go, in a sense, because he has to learn that love and concern for others do not have to be fetters. Gwen needs to learn to let go and not always feel that she has to be perfect in order to be worthy of love.

I did notice, particularly early on, a few possible anachronisms – in his meeting with Gerard, Alex tells his brother that he shouldn’t get so upset; he’s liable to give himself an aneurysm. Later in the same scene, Alex thinks to himself that Gerard is acting like the “schoolyard bully” he once was. I have no concrete knowledge of whether “you’ll give yourself an aneurysm” was a phrase in usage in the 19th century (I more often see “apoplexy”, which isn’t exactly the same thing, medically, but I think conveys the same idea). I also doubt that “schoolyard bully” (or schoolyards, for that matter) would have been familiar to 19th century English aristocrats. Late in the book Gwen uses the word “conned”, which I also question being in common usage, particularly by someone of her background.

These anachronisms were minor in the larger scheme of things and may have been in fact more noticeable because the setting otherwise did feel authentic. Once I notice such things, though, I feel compelled to mention them (if only so someone can correct me on whether they are in fact anachronisms!).

Despite my quibbles with certain aspects of the plot, Wicked Becomes You was definitely another successful story for me. My grade is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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This is a mass market published by Simon & Schuster, a member of the Agency 5. For some reason I cannot find any S&S books at Sony and few at Kobobooks.

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

34 Comments

  1. Catherine
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 14:54:01

    I am working on “Written on your Skin” right now – I can’t wait to read this one! Thanks for the review!

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  2. TKF
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 14:58:32

    I'm not big on the Victorian period, and so haven't read Duran's books, but Schoolyards (and their attendant bullies) have been around as long as public schools, which when you consider Eton and Harrow means a very long time indeed.

    Aneurysms have been known medically since the 17th century, though I can't actually say that someone would have used it in the way Duran has (I can't find any such period use in the OED or Google Books).

    Conned is incorrect by a few years (OED dates it to 1896, though it was likely in use verbally before it appeared in print the first time).

    The last two are such minor quibbles though (especially when compared with some of the stuff I see in other books!) that I'd give her a pass on them. It's not like she's hanging her plot on a legal impossibility or major anachronism. And no author is ever going to be perfect. If you look hard enough you can find errors in pretty much any author's book (in fact, I don't think I've ever read a historical novel I haven't found an error in).

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  3. Aislinn Macnamara
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 15:42:31

    My trusty copy of English Through the Ages puts “aneurysm” in use, surprisingly, from the 1400s. “Schoolyard” existed during the time period. “Conned,” as mentioned, is a bit too modern; on top of that it’s noted as an Americanism. I can forgive that, though. I can’t wait to get my hands on this book, based on this review and the one on AAR.

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  4. Maili
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 17:02:44

    I’m so slow. It took me a bit to figure out what this meant:

    Here, musing on her commitment to knit sweaters for an orphanage:

    Ten sweaters in a month!

    Gwen was not a loom!

    I forgot that ‘sweater’ is what a jumper is.

    I also doubt that “schoolyard bully” (or schoolyards, for that matter) would have been familiar to 19th century English aristocrats.

    It depends on what you mean. As a phrase or the concept? If latter, it’d be familiar to some 19th-century aristos, especially those boarders who were fags (school slang for ‘errand boys’). If former, I have no idea.

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  5. TKF
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 17:49:03

    Trust Maili to point out (correctly) that “sweater” is the actual anachronism, LOL!

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  6. Jennie
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 18:38:03

    The last two are such minor quibbles though (especially when compared with some of the stuff I see in other books!) that I'd give her a pass on them.

    Oh, absolutely. I just feel this reflexive impulse to mention anachronisms when I come across them – as I said, at least I can then be educated about whether I’m right or not!

    It depends on what you mean. As a phrase or the concept? If latter, it'd be familiar to some 19th-century aristos, especially those boarders who were fags (school slang for ‘errand boys'). If former, I have no idea.

    Oh, absolutely I meant the phrase. I don’t even have an issue with “bully” being used to describe the behavior – I guess I thought “schoolyard” was more modern usage. It’s something I associate with recess at day schools. (Did they have recess in Victorian boarding schools? They probably called it something else.)

    Trust Maili to point out (correctly) that “sweater” is the actual anachronism, LOL!

    Too true! I didn’t even notice that.

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  7. Janine
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 19:06:29

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! I had a blast reading it when I critiqued it, and even more when I read it for fun a couple of weeks ago. I have loved all of Meredith’s books, and it’d be pretty damn hard to unseat Written on Your Skin from its “favorite by Meredith” position, but this book is probably my second favorite of hers. I love that it has this surface frothiness but underneath that surface is a lot of substance.

    With regard to Alex using Gwen to get access to Barrington, I thought that it was in keeping with his conflicted feelings about protecting Gwen. He seemed to me to be doing a number on himself, trying to prove to himself that he would rather be unencumbered by emotional ties, even though it wasn’t really true.

    For example, he was planning to be in South America during Gwen’s wedding. I was a little irritated with Alex for that and for endangering Gwen so casually, but that made his ultimate anger at himself for it all the more satisfying.

    With regard to the anachronisms, I apologize for not catching them.

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  8. LL
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 20:21:52

    @Janine: It’s going on my Wish List.

    But I must ask, how many times does Gwen plan on getting married in the book? In your review you mentioned she was jilted twice, and in this last post a third wedding?

    thanks

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  9. Ridley
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 20:22:42

    I bet, though, that if she submitted that with jumper instead of sweater and editor would’ve “fixed” it somewhere along the line.

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  10. Moth
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 21:20:55

    I really, really loved Duke of Shadows, so I was very sad when her other two books really didn’t live up to the awesomeness of that book for me. I keep reading her, though, hoping I’ll find that magic from her again. :(

    I’ve got this one on hold at the library. *fingers crossed*

    I wish she’d write another book set in India too.

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  11. Jennie
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 23:49:39

    I love that it has this surface frothiness but underneath that surface is a lot of substance.

    Yes! There was a great balance of light and dark in the book.

    But I must ask, how many times does Gwen plan on getting married in the book? In your review you mentioned she was jilted twice, and in this last post a third wedding?

    I think she’s referring to the second wedding, which Alex had not planned on attending, but did.

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  12. Janine
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 01:26:09

    @LL: Jennie (who wrote the review) is correct. I was referring to the second time Gwen was jilted. It’s described this way in Jennie’s review:

    The action then moves forward four years, to another church; it's Gwen's wedding day and she's about to get jilted – this time at the altar – for the second time. Alex is there to witness her humiliation (along with the rest of the ton, most of whom regard Gwen with fondness because she's just so darn nice). Alex generally stays out of London; his business concerns take him around the world, and he's only stopped in to see his older brother, the Earl of Weston, to find out why he sold a piece of family property. Alex doesn't care about the property, but he does care about his family, and he cannot resist his twin sisters' pleas to get to the bottom of the sale; he suspects the earl may be having money problems. So it's only chance that Alex is there in the pew when Gwen's prospective groom literally bolts

    That’s the wedding I was referring to; sorry that I wasn’t more clear.

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  13. Maili
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 02:40:55

    @TKF: I didn’t even realise ‘sweater’ was an anachronism! I was too busy getting rid of this bizarre image of Gwen knitting a sports top, and the fact I was dense. :D

    It got me wondering which word would fit in with Gwen’s scenario. ‘Pullover’ would be an anachronism, I think. ‘Jersey’ and ‘gansey’ wouldn’t fit. To be honest, I think the only thing that would fit is a knitted scarf or shawl, because I don’t think I’d ever come across images or descriptions of Victorian-era city/urban children wearing jumpers. I have only seen knitted socks, knitted blankets, ganseys for sporting men or residents of seaside towns, scarves, shawls, etc.

    Then again, I have almost zero knowledge about clothes and fashion, so what do I know? :D

    @Jennie:

    Oh, absolutely I meant the phrase. I don't even have an issue with “bully” being used to describe the behavior – I guess I thought “schoolyard” was more modern usage. It's something I associate with recess at day schools. (Did they have recess in Victorian boarding schools? They probably called it something else.)

    Oh, I see. In that case, ‘schoolyard bully’ as a phrase does seem odd, but that’s probably because we usually call a schoolyard ‘playground’. :D I have no idea if Victoria-era boarding schools had playgrounds, though. I don’t think I have ever seen one in those images I saw a while ago, but who knows?

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  14. coribo25
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 03:28:28

    The word quad, or quadrangle fits better as a period word for schoolyard.
    Bullying was so endemic and accepted as part of the Public (private ) school system that they would have simply referred to it as bullying. I don’t know the context in which the phrase was used in the story but while some people might have disapproved of the bullying, they wouldn’t have been shocked to hear it took place.

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  15. RachelT
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 03:53:25

    @Maili: We would say that children go out to play, or have play time when you would say recess. Whether these were the phrases used at the time, I don’t know.

    Children may have worn a pullover or jersey – two more expressions used here for a sweater. I think they are used less commonly than 30/40 years ago when I was a child, especially the pullover. Of course, they may have been more likely to wear a cardigan!

    @coribo25:

    Children go out to play in the playground at school in the UK.

    I’m really looking forward to reading WBW, but unfortunately, the ebook is not available at all to UK citizens at present – and there’s no indication of when it might be. (Same applies to Rachel Gibson’s Nothing but Trouble).

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  16. coribo25
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 05:30:09

    @RachelT:

    Hi Rachel, yes, but I’d associate that term more with state education than the Victorian Public School system.

    Since the Kindle version is more expensive than the book, I’ll be going for hard copy.

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  17. mdegraffen
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 07:10:54

    I don’t see sweater as an anachronism, I see it as a difference between British and American usage. I guess it also depends on your audience. Which term is more universal? If she had used jumper, we here in America would have imagined a completely different garment.

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  18. LL
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 07:29:16

    @Janine: No problem. Thanks for clearing it up. I was just doing a ‘poor, poor, Gwen’ thing thinking the woman had guts to try it twice much less three times. I enjoyed Duran’s other books, so this one is definitely on my wish list.

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  19. Kalen Hughes
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 09:16:39

    To be honest, I think the only thing that would fit is a knitted scarf or shawl, because I don't think I'd ever come across images or descriptions of Victorian-era city/urban children wearing jumpers

    Knit jackets date back to at LEAST the 17th century (usually they are some kind of informal garment meant for indoor use). The terms sweater and jumper (used as we use them now) are both 20th century. The Victoria and Albert has lovely examples in their collection. They were also quite commonly used for babies and toddlers, just as they are today.

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  20. Maili
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 11:39:20

    @Kalen Hughes: Right, which is why I said I have never seen any photos and images of Victorian-era city/urban children in jumpers (as in, v-necked pullovers). Usually cardigans, sometimes. It’s my fault for not clarify that I was referring to social photography that specialised in photographing children in the slums, not formal portrait photos. Here are some photographic examples.

    Of course, it still doesn’t mean ‘sweater/jumper’ didn’t exist, which is why I said I don’t know enough about clothes and fashion to know. So thank heavens for the likes of you, as you have an amazing font of knowledge where fashion and clothes are concerned. :D

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  21. DS
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 12:48:30

    Jennie, you sent me on a very interesting search on the origins of the word “bully”. It occurred to me that I’ve read and heard the term “Bully for you” in period stories, which means a good thing. There’s also a type of caramel candy called a bully.

    I had an inspiration and checked out Tom Brown’s Schooldays, (1857) supposedly set in the 1830′s to 1840′s (where the Flashman character, later used by George MacDonald Fraser in his series of novels first appeared). Flashman was a bully, playground got a mention, school yard was not used. No one wore a jumper.

    However, in the late 19th century a jumper was a type of jacket and was not necessarily knitted. It was worn by workmen or as part of a uniform: “Jumper To be of unbleached cotton duck extending 2 to 3 inches below the hip Collar of same material seaman pattern Sleeves open without cuffs and large enough to fit easily over the Guernsey.” The Guernsey-frock was knitted.

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  22. TKF
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 13:57:43

    I see school yard (and schoolyard) in period English books and magazines dating back to the early 19th century.

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  23. Jennie
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 18:19:52

    Now I feel bad because I’ve set this off on a tangent that’s overshadowing what a good book this really was!

    Honestly, I wouldn’t have even probably noticed it if the incidences of “schoolyard” and “aneurysm” didn’t occur in the same scene, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed “conned” if I hadn’t noticed the earlier examples.

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  24. Dishonor
    Apr 29, 2010 @ 22:17:31

    I just finished it, and I have to admit that while it was a good read, it didn’t wreak havoc on my emotions the way DoS and BBYT did.

    First, let me say up front that I am a devoted Meredith Duran fangirl. Her prose is always beautiful, her characters always so…tangible, and her plotlines somehow not ridiculous, no matter what the synopsis makes you think. But Written on Your Skin, which so many other people loved (It was actually my first MD book, off a recommendation from Jennie) simply didn’t hit the same notes that BBYT in particular hit. My expectations were simply ridiculously high for Wicked Becomes You, and somehow, it didn’t sparkle the way I’d hoped. Certainly, it’s a very well-written, well-considered book–I don’t think Meredith Duran is capable of writing a bad or even mediocre book. It’s good–without a doubt. But somehow, perhaps because I wasn’t too fond of the tropes used here, it just didn’t work spectacularly for me.

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  25. cdouglas
    May 03, 2010 @ 06:22:50

    I just finished this last night, and I loved it. It is certainly now my second favorite Duran book after Bound by Your Touch. I actually was never particularly drawn to blurb, and I wasn’t sure how much I would like Gwen but I adored her. She felt so real, and I thought her evolution within the course of the book felt very natural. I just wish Alex had been given a little more time, both with his point of view and exploring his relationship with his family a litle more. I really was interested in that dynamic and how that defined who he was.

    I like road romances in general and I enjoyed the plotline where Gwen was pretending to be Alex’s mistress when investigating Barrington. I guess it didn’t strike me as so out of character, especially considering how he reacted once they were in the situation and he realized how much risk she really was in.

    So, yeah, this book really worked me on many levels.

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  26. cdouglas
    May 03, 2010 @ 06:25:22

    I meant, it worked *for* me on many levels. Sorry!

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  27. Jennie
    May 03, 2010 @ 22:08:53

    @Dishonor: It happens. High hopes can bring a book down for me but honestly, if it didn’t live up to your expectations, it just didn’t. Better luck with her next book, I hope!

    It’s funny; I’m not sure but it seems to me that Duran is becoming one of those authors where everyone has a different favorite. I think that speaks to her talent as a writer – all her books are good enough to be beloved by some readers.

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  28. Jennie
    May 03, 2010 @ 22:10:39

    @cdouglas: Yeah, I love the way were came to know the Gwen beneath the perfect facade – she was really lovable. I think I loved her a bit more than Alex, actually, if only because I did feel he could’ve been fleshed out a bit more (in terms of his past). But I really liked both characters quite a lot.

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  29. Chrissy
    May 05, 2010 @ 17:33:41

    I just this afternoon gave up on this book. That’s rare for me.

    The pace was off, characters never connected, and all the light humor vanished about 100 pages in.

    By page 209 I just couldn’t take anymore.

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  30. Dear Author Recommends for May | Dear Author
    May 06, 2010 @ 10:02:24

    [...] Becomes You by Meredith Duran, recommended by Jennie and [...]

  31. Sherry Thomas
    May 06, 2010 @ 13:30:38

    This is my favorite book by Meredith Duran.

    The chemistry between reader and book cannot be explained. All I know is that I laughed all the way through this book. It was such a joy.

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  32. Stephanie
    May 06, 2010 @ 20:49:02

    Written on Your Skin is probably the Duran I’ve connected with most. Wicked Becomes You was well-written, but didn’t engage me as much. And I noticed the anachronisms more–the one that really pulled me out of the story was “dreck,” used by Alex’s elder brother, the Earl of Weston. I’d have expected an English aristocrat of the 1890s to use “drivel,” “rubbish,” or “filth,” not a Yiddish word whose written usage apparently dates from the 1920s.

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  33. dreamweaver
    May 10, 2010 @ 14:47:52

    Wicked Becomes You is my 3rd Duran book and I think it will probably be my last. The writing, as always, was beautiful, but I didn’t connect with the characters at all and I didn’t feel the connection (love) between the hero and the heroine. There was too much sarcasm and dry humour and it just made me feel that neither really liked the other, except on a physical level. Alex came across as an arrogant pr*ck, and Gwen like the poor little rich girl trying to escape the confines of her wealth, but not really doing so. She came across as needy and entitled. I didn’t find her adventures particularly wicked, actually. There were times when I half expected her to stamp her feet and go sulk in the corner.

    I really liked Bound by Your Touch. Written on Your Skin and Wicked Becomes You just didn’t do it for me.

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  34. Janine Best of 2010 List | Dear Author
    Dec 10, 2010 @ 11:02:46

    [...] Wicked Becomes You by Meredith Duran* (review by Jennie) [...]

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