REVIEW: The Wicked Ways of a Duke by Laura Lee Guhrke
Dear Ms. Guhrke:
Except 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-