|The diary in Barbara Dawson Smith’s The Duchess Diaries is not the diary of Sophie Ramsey, the 8th and current Duchess of Mulford. It was written by Annabelle, the 3rd duchess, and seems irrelevant to the story (until it becomes central to it.) That about captures the whole book – much seems irrelevant until it becomes crucial, and then it makes no sense at all. This is a story about characters who are neither particularly likeable or particularly consistent involved in a drama that seems interesting, if improbable, until it becomes infuriating and impossible.
The current Duke of Mulford is Sophie’s nine-year-old son, Lucien. The previous duke, Robert, has been dead almost a year, and his guardian has finally shown up to take charge. Sophie is none too pleased about this; she had written to Grant Chandler to absolve him of responsibility for the guardianship. But because Grant had been hard to track down for some time (such are the perils associated with being an international jewel thief), Sophie’s letter reached him at the same time as a letter from his dear friend Robert in which the duke stated his suspicion that he was being poisoned by “one very dear to him.”
Grant, international jewel thief, wastrel and scoundrel, would seem an unlikely guardian for Robert’s son, except for one little detail. No spoiler here – the reader will know by the end of chapter two that Lucien is Grant’s own child, the result of a one-time-only with young Sophie. Grant is unaware of this, but Robert knew and had agreed to marry Sophie knowing she was pregnant. The reader will figure out why he agreed to this way before Sophie does. Robert was kind, gentle, neat, respectful, and had great fashion sense (you can see we’re going Brokeback long before it’s explicitly stated).
So now Grant has shown up determined to prove that Sophie killed Robert (she thinks the late duke perished from eating spoiled food). Her plan is to get Grant to go away before he figures out her double secret – Lucien’s parentage and Robert’s sexual orientation. When she understands that Grant thinks Robert was deliberately poisoned, she is all for going along to solve the mystery (and hopefully keep her secrets secret). So they are off to solve the mystery “together,” she believing it to be a true hunt, he intending to use it to get her to confess her guilt.
This is by far the biggest problem with the book. He thinks her capable of poisoning her husband, killing his only friend, and he decides he will force her to admit it by getting her in his sexual thrall so she’ll spill the beans? Yuck. They begin their affair with the basest of reasons on both sides. He, to get her confession through the most intimate act possible; she…well, it’s actually not clear. It might be because a friend suggests it, or it might be pure lust.
This flimsy and somewhat sordid pretense for their affair is not the only shortcoming in the book. Even what seemed the best part of the story turned into disappointment. The mystery itself really kept me guessing, and even wondering if Robert had been mistaken in his suspicions. Right up until the end, I could not figure it out. Thus, the disappointment – when the answer is exposed, it is beyond improbable and illogical. And, in fact, the mystery took up so much room that the love story (such as it was) was very rushed at the end. Sophie and Robert spent so much time running hither and yon that the romance had to be wrapped up from “I hate you” to “I’ve always loved you” in about three pages.
So much of this story seemed improbable. Fundamental questions go unanswered: why would Sophie go to her lover’s best friend when she discovered her pregnancy, and not to the lover who had made an honest, if grudging, marriage offer? And Grant and Robert supposedly didn’t have much contact after they went away to school, yet they were in town and seemingly all three were together for some amount of time, since Sophie had both slept with Grant and considered Robert a close enough friend to go to with her enormous problem. Many major questions seemed to have improbable answers, so in the end the whole story seemed a house of cards waiting for a none-too-strong wind to topple it.