I’m still reading historical romance novels and I keep a list of them as though tracking such things makes it any less ignoble. I call it The Shameful Tally. I also track the heroes’ names (Alex and Sebastian being the most popular), and the books so awful that I gave up on them.
What I Did for a Duke is from Julie Anne Long’s “Pennyroyal Green” series about the Redmond and Eversea families. She has set herself up quite nicely for a large group of interconnected novels as is a standard practice in this genre. It gives the reader a chance to revisit their favourite characters and is something I particularly like; so much so that I must confess, I have even bought a book only because I knew I’d get to see “Sebastian and Evie” (Lisa Kleypas The Devil in Winter) again. I adore them. I will buy any book they are in. Publishers are smart and I am easily led. From this Julie Anne Long series, I’ve also read How the Marquess Was Won. That book was so good, so good, oh Sweet Fancy Moses that is romantic, wait, is this high school?, oh, now, it’s all fallen apart, RATS! By the way, if you think these titles are bad, Long has a book called I Kissed an Earl that is waiting for me on my Kindle. As if the cover art weren’t embarrassing enough, these titles add insult to ignominy.
I’ve sampled about 2 dozen writers and you’ve got to give a writer credit where it is due: If you can pull off an almost 20 year age difference and make it not only palatable but irrelevant, you are on the right track. What I Did for a Duke pairs 20 year old Genevieve Eversea with “almost forty” (a phrase often and lovingly repeated) Alex Moncrieffe, Duke of Falconbridge. He is a widower out for revenge against Genevieve’s brother, Colin, for attempting to bed the Duke’s fiancée. Over the course of a house party, Alex sets out to seduce and leave Genevieve, but, pleasantly enough, the revenge plot is called off when this young woman figures it out, and is far lovelier and more attractive than Alex had anticipated. She’s bright and banters well. He’s charming and kind of autocratic. Tra la la. They get married. YAY!
There is nothing new here which is good because I am not looking for anything new, just fresh. It’s nice to see a standard revenge plot dismantled, but the real reason that this book works is simple: Julie Anne Long is very funny and she writes great smolder. That’s all it takes really; in fact, if you can pull off the funny, you don’t necessarily need the smolder, and, yes, she is that funny.
Long is also clearly paid in italics and has so many she doesn’t know what to do with them, so she scatters them wherever she can. One can’t help but feel that maybe she doesn’t trust the reader to follow her prose exactly as she intended. She gets the forms of address wrong throughout the book: the Duke is called by the wrong short form of his name and the wrong title. Plus the book suffered from Student Font Syndrome. You know what I mean: the font is larger to make the book look longer. The publisher didn’t pull in the margins, but it was a near run thing. I assume that writers of these books have quite specific deadlines and contractual output requirements. This is not Balzac. This is one book every 9 months or so, if my calculations are correct, so if Long doesn’t meet the length requirement, but manages to be really funny, I have no complaints. It’s easy escapism and shows sufficient promise that I will give her other books a try, but not quite enough promise that I am willing to buy any of them. These novels are what library paperback sections are for. Except this particular one. I kind of want my own copy of this one.
Edited April 17, 2013: I now consider Julie Anne Long one of the best romance writers currently publishing. Lisa Kleypas really skewed the curve for a while there when I was starting out with this phase. I bought this book as well as almost everything else Long has published, and she is on my autobuy list.
Edited October 1, 2013: What a bitchy review. So bitchy, this is the second time I have edited something that only I will see. What I Did for a Duke is a CLASSIC and I couldn’t see it at the time. The hero, Alex, is in the pantheon of great heroes. There are some issues with the structure, but the fact is that in addition to the overall charm, humour, and delicious smolder, there is a two or three chapter section in the middle of the book that is simply magnificent. It features the hero and heroine having the kind of conversation that people falling in love have. The dialogue is honest and beautifully written, but what truly elevates it is the silences. There are long pauses during which the characters think and the reader follows their emotions to their conclusion. It’s just superlative and because it, and the rest of the book, are true to the emotional lives of the characters, Long accomplishes what every romance writer sets out to do.
A complete summary of Julie Anne Long’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.