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REVIEW: The Wicked Ways of a Duke by Laura Lee...

Dear Ms. Guhrke:

006114361801mzzzzzzz.jpgExcept for a quick skim of Conor's Way a year or so ago, The Wicked Ways of a Duke is the first of your books I have read. And after finishing it, I think I understand the source of your popularity: an ability to create a vivid portrait of characters who are standard Romance types brought to credible life through solid and accessible prose. A year or two ago I might well have been enchanted by this book, because the characters would have been newer to me, their story fresher. Like the story's hero, however, I am a bit too familiar with the various turns these characters take on their path to love to be swept so easily away, and so when the story ended I still had my somewhat jaded sensibilities intact. While entertaining, The Wicked Ways of a Duke was not a love match for me.

Girl-bachelor Prudence Bosworth, unmarried at 28 and convinced she is plain and plump, is a seamstress living alone in London in a women's boarding house. Rhys De Winter, the Duke of St. Cyres, has just returned to England and a series of bankrupt and degraded family estates. Rhys has no particular interest in rescuing the family fortune, but because he blew through his own inheritance while abroad, he must do something to sustain his own lifestyle. Prudence and Rhys first meet at a ball where Prudence is mending ladies' dresses and Rhys is looking for some diversion. Immediately attracted to Prudence's soft curves (as well as her modest social status), Rhys realizes that she is not the kind of woman he's looking for that night because she's obviously an innocent. Rhys makes quite an impression on Prudence, however, when he rescues a young maid from being raped in an alley outside the ball, a moment that convinces Prudence that Rhys is everything gallant and respectful.

Had the trajectory of Prudence's life not changed with the announcement that she was inheriting the enormous sum of a million pounds a year from the father she never knew — a man who fled England and Prudence's pregnant mother to start a successful chain of department stores in America — the Duke of St. Cyres would probably have been no more than a pleasant memory. But Prudence and Rhys are fated for more, in part because each has what the other so desperately needs. On a superficial level that amounts to Rhys's need for money and Prudence's need for a husband to meet the conditions of her inheritance, as she must marry within a year and Rhys must come up with enough money to pay the taxes on his properties. On a deeper level, though, Prudence has that soft romantic sweetness that Rhys never had much of in his life, and Rhys has a wicked edginess to tease Prudence into more assertive self-confidence.

Experienced Romance readers will recognize this set-up immediately, and can probably guess most of the steps to love. Rhys understand that Prudence's romantic nature requires her to believe she is marrying for love and not money, and Prudence senses in Rhys a deep emotional hurt she cannot resist uncovering and mending (after all, she is a seamstress). So Rhys undertakes a courting ritual that depends on several lies, which are sure to come reckoning only after his heart has been unexpectedly engaged by the practical Prudence, an irony made richer by the fact that at that point Prudence has come fully into her own sense of independence. Cue conflict, confessions, crying, and the ultimate reconciliation, wherein Prudence can be certain Rhys loves her for herself, and Rhys learns to be a grown-up man and reconnects to his own lost idealism. The End.

I know I sound a bit petulant in that summary, and really I don't mean to, because all in all I enjoyed the few hours I spent reading the book, even if it all felt so very familiar. I liked that Prudence was not the willowy heroine, and I appreciated that Rhys found her "delicious" and "luscious" without qualification, monetary incentive, or the appeal of a sparkling wit. I liked the late Victorian setting, not only because it allowed for more social mobility among the characters, but also because it made it easier to accept a certain modern sensibility in Prudence's character. I appreciated that Rhys was drawn to Prudence not as a mother figure (seeing that his own mother was so icy) but as a woman, and I thought that his attraction to her "genuine" sweetness was insightful. Prudence disliked the notion that she was "sweet" because she thought that meant biddable and weak, but Rhys understood that quality in terms of kindness and the ability to see the good in others – that is, as genuine character strengths and not as feminine wiles.

That Rhys doesn't really ever regret his machinations was refreshing, as well, because it's always a disappointment to me to have a hero's selfishness tempered with an artificial conscience. What makes Rhys interesting is the way he pursues Prudence in such a calculated way while still truly wanting her, something that makes room for both his ruthlessness and his humanness. The way their physical relationship develops somewhat gradually made sense to me, also, as did the way it tracks their growing emotional intimacy. And the way Rhys's reluctant emotional dependence on Prudence mirrors her own awakening sophistication was a nice balancing of their characters. At each step of the relationship and the plot the dynamics seem logical and fitting, and although there are no real surprises along the way, Rhys and Prudence are likable and believable for the most part.

For me this book lacked any enormous flaws. The writing was serviceable and smooth, and at times even eloquent:

Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there.
As always when he read that line, a wave of longing swept over him, a longing for the England of Browning's brushwood sheaf and singing chaffinch, a longing for the ideals of his country, for the ideals of his position, for any ideals at all. A longing for home.
Perhaps you were just homesick.
No perhaps about it. He'd been homesick for as long as he could remember. (168-169)

I also noticed quite a few cliches in the prose, though, and I frankly don't know whether those were popular phrases at the time of the novel or whether they were simply contemporary cliches transplanted into the book. There were also many Romance staples in the narrative. If, for example, we didn't know Rhys was a rake, we have this to remind us: If he still had a conscience, that might have bothered him. But his conscience, like his innocence, had disappeared before his thirteenth birthday (111). At one point Prudence dabbed savagely at her eyes before any tears could fall (190). If I could eliminate one word from the vocabulary of genre Romance, it would probably be every variation on the word "savage," including and especially its use in that sentence. Then there's the inevitable explanation for the virgin heroine's understanding of certain male phenomena: There was a particular hardness in his body where he was pressed against her, Having lived in the country most of her life, she realized what it meant . . . (243). Is the country really the only way for a woman of almost thirty who has lived independently in London for eleven years to know what that means?? For the most part, though, the prose was very readable, although after reading passages like that homage to Browning, I wished more of it had felt inspired to me.

Further, while the scenes involving character interactions were well-paced, there was narrative interspersed throughout the book, transitional passages and background, that felt flat to me and broke up the rhythm of the story. Some of it related to the historical background of the novel, which struck me as a bit ironic, because for all the moments that something was introduced into the text to remind me of the year, I still did not feel that this was a book set in 1894, but rather one poised between 1870 and sometime today. I know there are just certain contemporary sensibilities that we will never remove from historical Romance, in large part because that is our ingrained perspective living in the early 21st century. But I still didn't feel some of the more stunning developments of the 1890s in the book, from the large-scale economic depression and recovery to the political upheavals to some of the class and labor issues. As a seamstress, Prudence struck me as someone who should occupy the lower classes, but she was presented as pretty firmly middle class. Despite widespread antipathy for the aristocracy in the last decades of the 19th century, there still seemed to be a fair amount of awe of titles and highborn individuals in the novel. The novel did have a Victorian sensibility, but I still felt a certain historical dissonance.

I haven't read the first girl-bachelor book, but the heroine from that book makes an appearance in The Wicked Ways of a Duke, and it's clear who the heroines in waiting are. I have to say that I've always enjoyed heroine-centric novels, especially those featuring women of unusual backgrounds, so I may try another one of these novels, perhaps Maria's story, since she appears to be quite sassy and forthright. While I liked Prudence, I wondered at times why she had remained so completely removed from anything sexual, because her sensuous nature seemed at odds with her romantic asceticism, and her innocence felt more like a plot device than an authentic character trait. And at one point in the novel I felt she should have taken more responsibility for the part her own deception played in the crisis the couple faces. Also, I had the impression at points that almost every Romance convention came into play in fleshing out Rhys and Prudence's backgrounds, from illegitimacy to drug abuse to child abuse, and it seemed less, rather than more, authentic for all that. Overall, I did not find anything grievously unlikable about this novel, even though I was disappointed that the story didn't offer a new take on the virgin-rake dynamic. As I said at the beginning of the review, I can see why a novel like this would have strong appeal to Romance readers looking for a comfortable read that they can count on for solid storytelling and likable, lively characters. B-

~Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

11 Comments

  1. vanessa jaye
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 16:31:42

    “strong appeal to Romance readers looking for a comfortable read that they can count on for solid storytelling and likable, lively characters.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head here for me. Although, unlike you, I did get swept away to a degree bacause as you said LLG has the “ability to create a vivid portrait of characters who are standard Romance types brought to credible life”. If I were to grade this, I’d give it a B. The resolution in the last Act was a little too smooth/easy and this dimmed my satisfaction a bit.

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  2. Sarah
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 17:58:47

    I enjoyed the first book in this series, An Then He Kissed Her, enormously. I was to be honest a tad disappointed with this book for all the reasons you numerated in your review. However, for me it was still one of the better historical romances I’ve read in a while.

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  3. Robin
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 20:34:37

    If I were to grade this, I'd give it a B. The resolution in the last Act was a little too smooth/easy and this dimmed my satisfaction a bit.

    Yeah, I agree about the ending, but what really dinged it for me was the combination of 1) no novelty, 2) time period distortion, and 3) the Romance cliche salad bar feeling. But it was so *readable* it got pushed back up to the low B range, rather than the C it would have been otherwise.

    I enjoyed the first book in this series, An Then He Kissed Her, enormously.

    Yes, that one seems to have been very well received. I might have to read it now that I’ve read this one. I soooooooooo wish that the time period felt right, though, because I lurve the late, late Victorians. I mean, think about it — this book is supposedly set a mere six years before Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie and only twenty years before WW! It’s set during the period of modernism and is on the cusp of the modernist literary tradition, as well.

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  4. Janet
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 20:36:26

    I forgot to login as Janet before I responded. *sigh*

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  5. vanessa jaye
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 21:23:43

    The ‘no novelty’ part didn’t bother me in part because LLG engaged me enough that it wasn’t something I noticed/didn’t notice. Unless they'd driven a Toyota down the street, I wouldn't recognize the subtleties that niggled you about the time period. In fact the details she did use (okay, I'm blanking, but I think there was something about the valet/maid having saucers of tea, etc) made the setting more real/unique/interesting for me. This book felt ‘fresh’ for me because those details distinguished if from the ubiquitous Regency fare of Almacks and phaetons, etc.

    Also that depth of character you mentioned added to freshness for me. I appreciated that Rhys was the unrepentant real deal rake and that Prudence wasn’t in any way shape of form ‘feisty’ or ‘sassy’ or ‘tstl’. She had dignity and vulnerability, she had stars in her eyes and was giddy with first love. She avoided confrontation, not because she was spineless, because she couldn’t be bothered. She was hurt and angry but didn’t become embittered or weepy.

    Ironic to say it felt to me like LLG took chances in making her characters so real and not conform to the romance genre expectations so they’d be more likable (particularly Rhys.)

    I do see what you’re saying about the whole tragic childhood thing, but well-adjust characters rarely make for interesting reading. There needs to be changer/growth/self-awareness. In that way it’s best to have a well-adjusted character who'll have the rug pulled out from under them and then the story is overcoming this obstacle, or having them deal with another character who has a lot of baggage and then the story might have much to do with compromise or having values shaken, etc.

    The opposite of having (too much) romance childhood baggage clichés is the Perfect perfect! character everyone loves, who is good and kind and rides around on My Little Pony doing good deeds all the live long day. wow. gag. I’d rather read the love story of Anguish McAngst and Lamoana Despairie.

    And oh boy did I get waaay off topic! So, ermm… yeah, read And Then He Kissed her. lol.

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  6. Jill Myles
    Jan 01, 2008 @ 10:28:51

    I’ve never read anything of Guhrke’s before AND THEN HE KISSED HER (which I am reading now). I’m not a fan of the Victorian setting, but her characters are great. I’m definitely going to pick up the new one.

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  7. Janet
    Jan 01, 2008 @ 13:17:14

    Jill: As I said, TWWoaD is very readable — I hope you enjoy it. The Guhrke book I want to read now is The Marriage Bed, because it was so controversial and actually lost her some readers because of the hero.

    Vanessa: I understand what you’re talking about, and who knows what makes some authors click with readers and others not. For example, I love Jo Goodman’s books, even though she takes on some of the most-employed Romance characters in the genre. Her books always feel fresh and emotionally authentic to me, so I don’t mind the “types” (in fact, I grow to appreciate them a bit more, I think).

    But I didn’t have that big love for Guhrke’s prose — both for the reasons I explained in my review and because of those elusive “style” and “taste” factors that always come into play when we read.

    Also, Prudence felt less developed to me than Rhys, and while I agree with you that her strengths were more subtle, she still felt flatter to me. Plus, the bar for late Victorian stories about seamstresses was set for me with Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star, and I did have a few moments of comparison-making as I read Guhrke’s book (even though the stories are very different) that I think influenced by response to TWWoaD.

    And maybe because Guhrke made an effort to include certain tidbits of her time period I was even more aware of what I registered as historical dissonance in the book. As much as she tried to make the timing right, it just wasn’t, IMO, and its persistent presence made it even more ‘off’ to me, if that makes sense. That I graded the book anywhere in the B range really speaks to how readable I found it, despite all the things I didn’t really dig.

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  8. Sylvia
    Jan 01, 2008 @ 15:13:18

    I don’t know what scene it was but it seemed very similair to the one in And Then He Kissed Her that it did bother me. Prudence was a bit too starry eyed, but that was part of her character so it didn’t bother me, that much… well okay she annoyed me and basically she was way open to Ryhs manipulations.

    I think the thing with Ryhs past was that it kept being reffered too, but never telling you what happened until he tells Prudence, and that was spit out and over with. You really don’t know that much of Thomas? other than he was molested by their uncle and killed his self. I thought that it should have at least mention more of what he was like other than what happened to him.

    I agree that Prudence’s character seemed flatter than Rhys. Which is what did bother me… and when he proposes I laughed, well, because it was funny how cheesy what he said was.

    Over all I read it in one setting so though it wasn’t as good as her other novels, I enjoyed it. I also liked the epilogue I thought it a little this for that, hah, which made it much better.

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  9. sherry thomas
    Jan 01, 2008 @ 23:31:57

    I kept thinking of The Shadow and the Star as I was reading And Then He Kissed Her. I even had a discussion with Janine when I wondered whether the influence was really that obvious or whether it was just me b/c I’d read The Shadow and the Star a million times. Janine, who hadn’t read ATHKH, said that if LLG is imitating Kinsale, then at least she’s imitating the best. :-)

    the bar for late Victorian stories about seamstresses was set for me with Kinsale's The Shadow and the Star, and I did have a few moments of comparison-making as I read Guhrke's book

    Now I know I’m not alone in seeing Kinsale’s influence. And of course Leda from The Shadow and the Star was first a seamstress, and then a secretary.

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  10. Robin
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 12:29:58

    Sylvia: It didn’t bother me that she was naive or manipulated by Rhys (since she already had stars in her eyes before she got her inheritance), although I did find it unrealistic that she’d believe he didn’t know about her inheritance. I’m thinking really that it was the fact that so many things we discover about her we discover through Rhys and not through her own characterization, which struck me as problematic. Although I like it when characters mirror each other and reveal each other, I don’t want seemingly everything significant to be revealed by other characters. But Prudence’s character didn’t seem to come alive until she was in play with Rhys’s, and that gave me an uneven view of her character, I guess, and belied the strength she was supposed to possess.

    Sherry: TSATS was set a few years before the Guhrke book (IIRC the Kinsale book was set during Victoria’s Jubilee, which would have been in like 1886 or 7?), but it felt SO MUCH more late Victorian to me than the Guhrke book did. I didn’t want to mention the recollection in my review because I thought maybe it was only me, lol, but obviously it’s not (and I’ve only read TSATS three times).

    I have absolutely no idea if Guhrke was “inspired” by the Kinsale book, but her book suffered by the comparison I drew, largely because of the way each book presented the late Victorian atmosphere. I mean, MOVING PICTURES were already invented by the time Guhrke’s book takes place, electric-lighted homes were less than a decade away. And despite the presentation of a “thoroughly modern” Prudence, the book itself didn’t have that aura of modernity that the last years of the 19th century introduced. I know it’s not such a big deal to other readers, but for me it really shaped the way I received characters living in LONDON in 1894 (i.e. the way the middle class characters viewed the aristocracy or the way Prudence’s class status is handled — let alone the way her naivete is presented).

    Since you mention Leda’s work as a secretary, I assume that Emma was a secretary in And Then He Kissed Her? What were the similarities to TSATS you noticed in that book, Sherry?

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  11. sherry thomas
    Jan 02, 2008 @ 18:28:32

    Robin,

    It’s hard to say precisely “what” was the similarity. But I just felt, when I read ATHKH, that she was very much striving for TSATS.

    Sometimes it’s in Emma’s character and emotional responses that I felt it. Perhaps this is unfair to Emma as a character, but romance heroines are not, on the whole, a very proper bunch. So an excruciatingly correct heroine like Leda really stands out from the pack, and it’s hard not to compare another proper secretary to her.

    Sometimes it is in the way LLG structures her language–I think I notice that because I admire the way Kinsale conveys emotions with tremendous restraint in her words and I think LLG is going for the same.

    Here’s LLG’s list of historical romances everyone should read: TSATS topped her list.

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