JOINT REVIEW: Catch a Falling Duke by Eve Pendle
Jennie: Janine has read and reviewed two previous books in this series: Falling for a Rake and Once a Fallen Lady. When I expressed an interest in trying this author, she suggested that we might review this one together.
The hero of Catch a Falling Duke is the brother of the heroine of Falling for a Rake. As the book opens Hugo Ravensthorpe has recently inherited the dukedom of Cumbria. He is at the family seat, Keisley Park, when he discovers some damning evidence about how the family earned its fortune some fifty years before. The news so shocks and disgusts Hugh that he immediately gets on his horse and flees.
It’s not revealed right away, but pretty quickly—I suspected that Hugh’s family secret involved either blackmail or participation in the slave trade. It turns out to be the latter.
Janine, I felt like Hugh’s response to this admittedly unsavory news was a bit of an overreaction – what did you think?
Janine: I could more than understand his feeling righteous anger at his father and grandfather for it, and his utter disgust at his family’s racism and hypocrisy. But his shock was less persuasive given how many nineteenth century English upper crust families invested in the slave trade.
Jennie: That’s a good point.
Hugo rides for hours, and when he stops at an inn, he encounters a woman being harassed by a lecher. Bea Fenton is a widow and a farmer, on her way to a fair (ostensibly to hire some workers, though she in fact has another reason as well). Thinking quickly, Hugo pretends to be Bea’s husband in order to put off the other man. The two end up dining together, then sharing a room together (the inn is full and everyone already thinks they’re married, so…). This leads to Bea (in a move that felt somewhat out of character, once I got to know her) suggesting that the two have a one-night stand.
Janine: It’s maybe slightly out of character? Given her history of infertility in her marriage it was less risky for her than it would have been for most women of her time period.
Jennie: Hugo doesn’t tell Bea that he’s a duke; or rather, he does mention it at one point, but in such a way that she doesn’t realize that he’s serious. The next day, he ends up accompanying her to the Orton Hiring Fair, since he’s still not sure what to do with the knowledge he’s gained about his family. Bea reveals her ulterior motive for visiting the fair: she wants to find a man, a Mr. Warner, who corresponded with her recently deceased mother. Hugh and Bea spend a delightful day together at the fair, and then spend another night together. The next day, he accompanies her to a nearby manor to uncover the mystery of Mr. Warner.
Hugh and Bea part with a great deal of ambivalence on both sides – they are each at least half in love with the other already. There are significant barriers to the two being together, the difference in their stations in life being the main one. Bea also believes that she’s infertile, which makes her feel that she’s unsuited to marry anyone.
I liked both Hugh and Bea as characters, but at the same time I felt they were bland. I couldn’t decide if the issue was depth of characterization, or that they were realistically-drawn, nice enough people who just weren’t interesting enough for me to really want to read a whole book about.
Janine: They are blander than Emily and Oscar in Falling for a Rake and in Hugo’s case, he has less depth, though I don’t think he’s entirely flat. I think both things have to do with the fact that Hugo and Bea aren’t that conflicted (this too is truer in Hugo’s case).
Except for Bea in the book’s second half, the characters are rarely pulled in two different directions in a long character arc. Internal conflict doesn’t necessarily prevent a character from lacking depth (multiple factors matter there), but a dearth of conflicted feelings does make it more likely. If a character isn’t pulled in at least two different directions it makes them less surprising and more predictable instead.
For me the flattest character in the book was Hugo’s sister Connie. There was a moment when Hugo mentioned her childhood loneliness when I thought we’d get more insight into her, and possibly even nuance, but then it went nowhere.
Jennie: I had the same feeling – and the last time we see her she turns into such a cartoony villainess, when I’d been hoping we’d see another side of her.
A bigger issue (which probably ties into the characters feeling somewhat one-dimensional) was that the entire tone of the book felt anachronistic to me.
There were a lot of examples that I noted where the language (and attitudes) of the characters did not feel true to the time or place. A couple: I noted the use of “toxic” to describe familial relationships, as well as “closure” to describe, well, a sense of emotional closure as it’s commonly used today. I’m not an etymologist, and cursory research did not give me any conclusive evidence that these words were not used in the way they are used in the book in 1885 England. But I was skeptical, and it took me out of the story.
Janine: I noticed those too and they annoyed me. I can’t find either particular meaning used here in the OED but the field of psychology was nascent in 1885—Freud didn’t set up his private practice in Vienna until 1886.
Jennie: There’s also a mention of “calling the police” that seemed off, though I believe the metropolitan police force did exist at that point (the characters are not in London at the time, however).
Janine: Local constabularies certainly existed outside of London in 1885; the office of sheriff was created in the ninth century according to Wikipedia–remember Robin Hood? Jonathan Swift used the phrase “call the police” as early as 1736. I wasn’t sure about “call the police on,” the phrasing used in the book, when I read it, but when I looked it up on Google Books I found an example in a British publication dating from 1863. So I don’t think there is a problem here.
Jennie: I guess I was expecting, if anything, constabulary or bobbies (though to be fair I have no idea when “bobbies” originated). But this is the problem once I start noticing anachronisms; it makes me more likely to notice more possible examples.
Janine: I know what you mean; it’s happened to me too. This just happens to be a time period I know more about. And yeah, “bobby” is listed in the OED as being from 1844 so it’s probably newer.
Jennie: Bea creates the phrase “to duke it” to describe when Hugo uses his money or power to try to solve problems, and just the structure of that phrase felt anachronistic (and a little too cutesy).
Jennie: The attitudes of the characters are similarly modern.
Janine: Hmm. I have fewer issues here.
Jennie: Another issue I had with Hugo was that aside from “duking it” occasionally, he didn’t seem very duke-like. It may be that my impressions of dukes in other romances color my belief in how dukes acted in 19th century Britain, but it is a *high* title and I felt like there wasn’t much evidence that Hugh had been raised in the rigid world that one would expect. His behavior was more in line with what I might expect from minor aristocracy – a certain comfort and familiarity with privilege – but not someone as powerful as a duke.
This is a fairly low-conflict romance – the hero and heroine mostly have to work on their own issues to get to a HEA. Hugo and Bea are very kind to and supportive of each other, and while I typically prefer a bit more h/h conflict, this type of story can be a nice break. I do think that perhaps the niceness of the characters contributed to them feeling bland to me, though.
Janine: Do you feel that Hugo’s deception regarding his title should have been treated as a betrayal more strongly? I did.
Jennie: You know, it didn’t really occur to me at the time. I’m not sure why. I guess for a couple of reasons: 1) he did tell her, albeit not in a way that she took seriously; 2) it wasn’t like she was contemplating her future with him before Hugh finally fessed up; Bea still seemed to think that her infertility was the biggest obstacle to them being together. It’s true that once she knew, she saw it as another barrier between them, but I think I would’ve reacted more strongly to it as a betrayal if she was really thinking they might work as a couple before that. He should have told her sooner, but in the context of the story it didn’t really bother me.
Janine: We haven’t discussed my favorite thing about the book. This gets into a spoiler area because it happens halfway in, but it was so unexpected and such a big part of the story that I can’t not mention it. I thought I knew exactly where things were going when a U-turn happened that surprised me.
Instead of the more conventional story I expected, the action shifts to Bea’s farm midway and we get this pastoral, bucolic second half that felt fresher, and not at all what I expect to see as the milieu of a historical romance set in England. And the issues I’ve touched on are handled in a far more interesting way and with more depth.
In the end, I feel like I admired this book more than I enjoyed it. There were elements that I appreciated – the lack of conflict meant the lack of overused tropes, for one thing. This feels like the sort of book that another reader, with somewhat different criteria, might like a lot. For me it was a C+.
Janine: I had some of the issues you had but not others, and I think I liked the second half better than you did. It’s a B- for me.