|Readers of Eloisa James may be worrying that When the Duke Returns is a rehash of her earlier novel Duchess in Love. Both feature long-standing marriages which have yet to be consummated. Both focus on the wandering husband's return. Both relate the unexpected relationship that ensues. Readers should stop worrying: aside from these similarities, they are entirely different, if equally delightful books.
Lady Isidore, the Duchess of Cosway, is desperate to meet her explorer husband. They were betrothed when she was nine and then married by proxy when she was twelve. She has been waiting ever since for him to return from his exotic expeditions and consummate her marriage. She is tired of waiting. Desperate times call for desperate measures: Isidore attends the house party of a notorious libertine hoping that the scandal will bring the Duke running. It does, but he is not what she expected.
Simeon Jermyn has been traveling around the world. Looking for the source of the Nile and the zen-like Middle Way have had their effect. He has an odd way of dressing. He does not like to powder his hair. And at almost thirty, he is still a virgin. All of this would be grounds for annulment, were it not for the fact that Simeon is far more attractive and intriguing than Lady Isidore has imagined.
Simeon is as undecided. He wouldn't mind getting married to a biddable young bride. Isidore is anything but. She refuses to accept that a husband has the final say. Worse, she spells chaos and disorder where he craves harmony and total self-mastery. In fact, renovating the ducal estate (including a sadly underkept sewage system) and dealing with his family's grandiose self-delusions are almost easier than mastering his desire for Isidore.
Isidore and Simeon's story is a fun one, premised on the notion that opposites not only attract but are also very good for each other. I found both distinctive, enjoyed watching them trying to outwit each other and have absolutely no doubt that they are well matched.
Isidore and Simeon's road to a happy union is peppered with entertaining interludes about life on an eighteenth-century country estate. Chief among these is Simeon's preoccupation with the above-mentioned sewage system. Trust James to come up with an original and somewhat self-mocking twist on a standard romance device: the house under renovation.
Occasional glimpses of the marital ups and downs of another desperate duchess, Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, add a sadder tone to an otherwise light-hearted, and frothy read. Jemma's story will probably feature in the next installment of this series, but I am not sure I am interested in hearing her darker story. I much prefer the younger lovers and the comic tone of When the Duke Returns. Along with James's impeccable style, they make this book a pleasure to recommend.