This is my first Beard book and I regret that it disappoints so early and never recovers. By the end of the second chapter, I knew this was one I would struggle to get through…and I did. Why? Because in that first 30 pages, the Duchess in the title reveals to us that her husband is dead, has actually been murdered and she is the only one who knows. She then proceeds to take a lover on the night of his burial…the gardener’s son, no less, with little emotion and little to ensnare readers into her story.
What follows is a fairly convoluted, yet somewhat idiosyncratic story of how she finds her true self after a life of degradation and verbal abuse at the hands of the dead duke. The romance is stilted and unappealing, often languishing in the characters’ angst over the fact that a duchess just does not have an equal relationship with a gardener’s son.
The Duchess is Oliva “Livie” Brandhurst, a lonely woman who was punished for thinking and even acting as if she was an equal during her 20 year marriage. Her Duke was a cruel man, disliked by all but his male lover, Sir Perry Moore, a friend of Livie’s who often protected her from the Duke’s evil ways. This male lover idea seems to be just thrown in to show us, the reader, how truly despicable the Duke was and yet, it leads indirectly to his death.
Now at age 40, a widow at last, Livie decides she is ready to live and she doesn’t care about convention or society. I have a difficult time with this, as there is nothing to indicate why she reaches this conviction all the sudden or even that she has the strength of character to pull it off.
First, Livie gets involved in trying to improve the conditions of the girls forced to work in “match factories” by a young woman who shows up on her doorstep one day. Clara Peacock is an ex-governess who left her previous employment after being attacked by the nobleman’s son where she worked. She turned to helping other young girls and somehow decides that the Duchess will help her. Lo and behold, the Duchess hears her story and decides to try to use her “influence” in the House of Lords. This plotline is implausible and rather dreary. She has no influence, as she has been a wallflower in her home for 20 years. In addition, this storyline is developed quite clearly, only to be dropped with no real resolution about the time the Duke’s murder becomes known.
The lover and hero is Will Barnes, a 20-something wanna-be painter and a member of the lower classes. Will has become inspired by his one night of love in the garden with the duchess and sees her as his muse. When he continues to see her, he realizes he loves her, but also recognizes that nothing can come of this love. His story is left undeveloped in many ways, as his background is never really explored, nor is his motivation clear.
There are a variety of subplots running through the story beyond the lover and the factory girls. Two men, the new Duke and the Duchess’s solicitor woo Clara. Her romantic entanglements are mildly entertaining, although highly unrealistic as her social status is even lower than Will’s! The solicitor’s character, Todd Leach, seems to be a hero type, but other than a few scenes where he lends support to Livie’s new ways, he is mainly an enigma. The new Duke, Andrew, is from America and is portrayed as part cowboy-part hayseed-part competent businessman. He seems to be thrown in for some humor but serves mainly as another distraction.
The story finally gets rolling about three-fourths into the book when the murder is finally revealed and they search for the real murderer. By this time, I care little and am intrigued by none of it. The resolution, when it comes, is unexpected, but with little consequence to me…except that it means the book was coming to a close.
Save yourself some angst and avoid The Duchess’ Lover.