DUELING REVIEW: The Runaway Duchess by Joanna Lowell
Janine: Layla and I reviewed Joanna Lowell’s last two historicals and when I saw that this one was coming out, I asked her if she would like to review it together as well. She agreed.
The Runaway Duchess is the story of Lavinia Yardley, who was engaged to Anthony, Duke of Weston and hero of The Duke Undone (book #1 in this series), much against his will. When we last saw Lavinia, Anthony had just freed himself from the engagement and exposed her father’s crimes. Lavinia disavowed her father, but she and her mother were left without resources.
As The Runaway Duchess begins, Lavinia is waiting for her mother to come up with a plan B when the lecherous, much older and creepy Duke of Cranbrook comes to propose marriage and she realizes that she is her mother’s plan B. She doesn’t view herself as having other alternatives so she says yes.
Lavinia is not a nice person initially. She begins the book a snob who feels superior anyone below her station, vain of her considerable beauty, spoiled, and nasty to her maid. It’s impossible to like her at first but you can see that Lowell is setting her up for a reformation.
Years earlier, Lavinia was seduced by George, Anthony’s late brother and a rakish duke who promised to marry her. It’s not clear he would have, and he died young, leaving Lavinia unmarried but no longer a virgin. She thinks Cranbrook won’t mind, but shortly after her wedding she overhears him laughing with and gloating about how much he’s looking forward to divesting her of her virginity. On top of being repulsed by Cranbrook, Lavinia now has a second reason to be anxious about her wedding night. She’s so dreading it that she eats a strawberry after the wedding knowing she is terribly allergic to them and hoping her reaction will stave off the horror to come. It does.
Lavinia and Cranbrook take the train to his country estate the following day, but at a train stop in Cornwall, Lavinia gets off the train to use the bathroom. She can’t find it, and when she is mistaken for a widowed collector of rare and foreign plants, Mrs. Muriel Pendrake, by Neal Traymayne, she jumps into his carriage and gets away.
Neal is a plant collector and botanist himself, as well as head gardener of nurseries at a company (the owner is the father of a late friend and grooming Neal to take over). Neal has never met Muriel before, but he’s heard the widow is pretty and after corresponding with her, has invited her to Cornwall to explore the countryside and its plant life.
Neal has a history of relationships driven by attraction and later gone awry, including a broken engagement to a society woman from a middle-class background. His mother’s marriage to his father is much different because of their shared interests in scientific studies. With his mother now dying, Neal has decided to find a woman she’ll approve of and marry her not because he is attracted to her but because of things they have in common. He anticipates that this will be a more successful basis for marriage, so he has an ulterior motive for inviting Muriel Pendrake to Cornwall—to woo her and convince her to marry him.
Muriel and her late husband collected plants in China in rough conditions, so Neal is surprised when “Muriel” turns out to be afraid during a dicey carriage ride, picky about their lodgings and food, and dressed impeccably. He assumed that she was intrepid and adaptive, and so Lavinia is thrust into a fish-out-of-water “fake it till you make it” situation. The mutual attraction between her and Neal helps but that she pulls it off for as long as she does is a bit of a stretch to believe.
Layla: I stayed up until 1 am (unheard of me I’m usually in bed by 9!) because I was so consumed by this book.
The writing—emotional, crisp, elegant and with a lot of beautiful scenes and descriptions. She did a great job setting up atmosphere—the feeling of intimate family life in a small community.
Janine: I had an opposite reaction. Even after Muriel started learning that there’s more to life than pretty dresses and looking down her nose at others, I still had difficulty connecting with her, and I quit around a third of the way in. Lowell’s characters often think about one thing while conversing about another and that distracts me from what they are feeling and from the connection between them. More importantly, after the first few chapters, there also wasn’t much happening besides the romance in the first 33%. The book dragged for me.
Layla: I love a road trip romance and a heroine in disguise. Both of these conceits allow for the couple who might not ordinarily meet or know each other, to spend a lot of time together in a period when men and women’s interactions were socially constrained. This worked wonderfully because you see the couple gradually move from awkward strangers to sort of friends, to lovers.
Janine: I agree that this can be a great premise. I thought of Mary Jo Putney’s One Perfect Rose, which has a similar premise but with the hero as the one in disguise who is getting away from his responsibility. I really like this concept and so I got excited when I heard about this book, but when I tried to read it, it just didn’t absorb me.
Layla: I like that the love scenes were delayed—by my count I only counted about two sex scenes towards the end but again this worked wonderfully. There is a slow buildup to intimacy. We see them move from shy first kiss to passionate and incendiary make out sessions to total intimacy. It makes sense for the time and place and for the type of people they are.
I also liked in the sex scene that she compares her previous sexual experience and comes to an awareness of what good sex is really about.
Janine: Oh, that sounds lovely. I agree that with this plot you have to take that slowly.
One of the ways that Lowell shows us Lavinia’s maturation and change is how she comes to see George. I loved this aspect of the book—it’s a reverse fairytale. She does fall in love with a prince (of sorts) but his love isn’t true. She ends up with the gardener instead!
Janine: Yes, that was good.
Layla: Lowell does a good job creating an atmosphere of sensual headiness—descriptions of very physical things, kneading dough, making bread, dancing, gardening, etc.
This was an unusual book for me to like in that I didn’t love the heroine from the beginning. In fact, she so unpleasant I couldn’t really get into the book. One thing that surprised me but that worked really well, is that she marries Cranbrook, the old goat! Again, this is playing with the fairy tale theme. No one rescues her, and there is a great scene in the prologue before she consents:
The marriage might be, in a sense, a success…. No, he would pinch and knead to his heart’s content. And she, his wife, his duchess, she would live a life in which luxury offset loathsomeness. To refuse, to choose dignity—that path led to utter abjection. How long would she preserve her dignity then?
Lavinia rescues herself in a way—when she eats the strawberries and later impersonates Mrs. Pendrake (a wonderful character by the way!) to escape her husband.
My quibbles—the depiction of Lavinia’s parents. I have a hard time believing parents could be so villainous and so cold and uncaring. However, it does ring true for the time and place. I did wish for a scene with her father, or some more complicated feelings from her about him. We’re meant to know that he wasn’t sacrificing—he didn’t do everything criminal that he did only for his daughter. However, she is treated as a princess by him which implies some type of love.
The hero’s looks are unusual:
His face was completely ordinary. Somewhat square, ordinary brown eyes. George had been a peacock. This man was utterly devoid of artifice.
He’s not a swoon-worthy handsome prince. What distinguishes him is his decentness, his lack of artifice, his virile masculinity.
His face was like an open book. An open book with slightly foxed pages. The sun browned skin, the lines around his eyes. He’d grown into that face, and it reflected his thoughts, his emotions. The moment felt too sincere.
I found him to be an extremely sexy hero! He is at home with his body, protective without being overbearing, sensitive and kind and also very curious and brave.
In first book in the series, Anthony is a more typical romance archetype—the gorgeous military duke. I found him to be lacking in depth and found the heroine of that book much more appealing.
Janine: I liked Anthony but I agree that Neal is a better hero. I think part of the difference is that Lowell took her time with Neal. Whereas with Anthony she rushed into describing his backstory pretty fast, with Neal we have a chance to get to know him more first, to sink into his characterization. In that sense, the characterization work here felt more mature.
I too found Neal very attractive. You’re right that much of that was his decentness, his ease with his body, his vitality and his caring, but I also liked his unconventional physical appearance because there was a warmth to his coloring and expressions that matched the warmth inside him. I also loved his directness.
One of the things that made it hard to keep reading had to do with how much I liked him—I didn’t like seeing Lavinia deceive him (although to be fair, she had no way to know that he was looking at her as his future wife) and I kept dreading the inevitable scene where he would learn that she had fooled him. I didn’t want him to experience resultant feelings of betrayal and humiliation. He didn’t deserve that.
Layla: Lowell does a wonderful job showing us the allure of stepping out of one life into another. The fish-out-of-water elements work.
Janine: Yes and no. I liked seeing Lavinia learn that social rank wasn’t all it was cracked up to be but I got impatient for her reformation because I struggled with liking her, especially in comparison to Neal’s cousins who were more welcoming and open-minded about her than she was to and about them. She was a guest in their house and took it for granted at first. This was very true to the period, though—many high-society people condescended to people whose rank in society was lower than theirs.
Layla: The descriptions of extended family worked really well too. What Lavinia is attracted to is that warmth and love that she is lacking.
The final scene was simply beautiful as moving as anything in a fairytale. I cried reading it.
I liked the contrast between the hero and heroine. Lavinia’s lived a life of artifice and is masquerading as a someone else, Neal is not only natural, but tied to the natural world. The author plays with these constructs very prettily.
Janine: Great point about how his association with the natural world and her association with modern (for lack of a better word) conveniences and the luxuries available in London are used to highlight the artifice/hiding vs. naturalness/directness theme.
Layla: We see the erosion of some of Neal’s beliefs that marriages like his parents—based on mutual pursuits—are ideal. After all what he wants, “a reasonable affable equitable connection”, isn’t exactly the stuff that great romances are made of!
What I like is that by the end, I believed in Neal and Lavinia’s love and connection. Despite their seeming differences, I was convinced that they were in love and a good match.
Janine: The book has some strengths but for me its weaknesses, particularly the pacing, Lavinia’s off-putting (to begin with) personality, and my dread of the moment Lavinia’s deception would be revealed, outweighed them. I still plan to read Lowell’s next book, though. She’s a strong enough writer to be worth exploring.
What is your grade, Layla? Mine is (obviously) a DNF.
Layla: I loved the sexy unconventional gardener hero, I liked all the elements of plot and narrative that structured the romance—heroine in disguise, fish out of water, redemption of a mean girl, the falseness of social masks, and the road trip—and in the end, I came to really admire and like Lavinia the reformed mean girl. Believing herself unworthy, seeking love in all the wrong places, she found someone to love her for who she is inside. Moving and uplifting and sweet. I highly recommend this book! A.