Our books today are a trio of delights from the good folks at Avon Books, and they come at just the right moment: despite the calendar showing a mid-March date, and despite Springlike temperatures only a few days ago, a monstrous blizzard is grinding its way toward Boston at this moment, threatening to bury budding plants, snarl traffic, and crush every spirit that had dared to hope for a change of season. Since these days I’m taking a pair of elderly dogs outside every hour all night every night, this year I definitely count myself among that number, and now, according to the latest prediction models (and according to the gossip amongst my sparrows out on the lilac bushes), we’re going to be slogging through a foot of snow on those potty-breaks.
It’s inordinately depressing, and it made me all the more grateful for these little bursts of color on my nightstand:
My Fair Duchess by Megan Frampton is just such a summery thing, starting right on the cover with a heroine being ravished in a bright yellow dress redolent of picnics among daisies (anyone attempting a picnic on Boston Common during this monster storm would instantly die). The heroine in question is, one presumes, the book’s main character, Genevieve, Duchess of Blakesley, who’s in an awkward position when the novel opens since she’s only just recently become the Duchess of Blakesley and hasn’t the first idea what to do or how to do it. Although she would balk at the concept, what she needs is shaping in her new status – hence the Shavian echo of the book’s title. Genevieve has a sharp mind and a winningly irreverent sense of humor but no idea what’s expected of her as a newly-minted duchess; in other words, as a delightful twist in Frampton’s long-running “Dukes Behaving Badly” series (which included 2015’s Put Up Your Duke), what we have here, at least at first, is a duchess behaving badly.
Enter Archibald Salisbury, a disinherited viscount’s son and war hero with a penchant for organization – and a longing for Genevieve that’s as deep as it is unspoken. He takes on the task of teaching her the rules of her new lot in life, and he goes about it with a steadfast concentration:
He needed to focus on the work. Not the work of getting to know her, either. The work of doing the job he had sent himself here to do, the one that would mean she was presentable to her world, a world he had only barely ever belonged in, and didn’t belong in at all now. And now that he thought more about it, it wasn’t just that she needed help in knowing how to behave; she also needed help in knowing what to do. From what she’d said, her father hadn’t known what to do, and so the duchy was suffering. It was important that she knew, and that he help her.
As in all the “Dukes” books, the main pleasure of My Fair Duchess is the light and knowing touch Frampton has when it comes to dramatizing the simple process of two people coming to care for each other in ways they didn’t expect – which may seem like a somewhat prosaic skill, until you try duplicating it. And the book’s added bonus – very funnily-rendered selections from the correspondence between the duchess and her steadfast Pygmalion – is like getting an extra hour of warm sunlight at that Boston Common picnic.
At first glance, the tranquility of a summer picnic seems alien to the hectic goings-on in The Truth About Love and Dukes by Laura Lee Guhrke (whose 2013 novel When the Marquess Met His Match was so delightful), although that very tranquility is the daily dream of the book’s hero:
Henry Cavanaugh longed for a well-ordered life. As the Duke of Torquil, he had many responsibilities, and they would have been easier to managed with a private life that was well-ordered and predictable. Unfortunately for Henry, he had two unmarried sisters, an impecunious younger brother, and a hopelessly indolent brother-in-law. He also had a pair of nephews who adoring driving nannies away and a mother with artistic inclinations. A well-ordered life never seemed quite within hi grasp. Henry mourned this fact on a daily basis.
In The Truth About Love and Dukes, the duke’s tranquility is shattered by one other thing too: the scandalous (and scandalously popular) anonymous London newspaper column “Dear Lady Truelove,” in which the dirty laundry of the rich and powerful is hung out and examined for the titillation of the paying Penny Press crowd. When an installment of the column provokes the duke’s own mother to a rash course of action, he decides to exact his revenge by finding the anonymous author of “Dear Lady Truelove” and doing a little exposing of his own. And although there are no clear leads to the author’s identity, Torquil suspects that Irene Deverill, the column’s publisher, might also be its author.
There follows a fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse of the type this author does so well: the more our hero and heroine spar with each other, the more they come to fascinate each other. Torquil uses his vast reserves to squelch Irene’s whole operation, and yet even when the contest appears at its most lopsided, he can still say to her, “You have more power than I care to contemplate, Miss Deverill” – and mean it. And another of this author’s strengths, the gut-punchingly happy ending (talk about a lack of tranquility), doesn’t desert her here: the last twenty pages of The Truth About Love and Dukes will have you smiling as though you’d just stepped outside to the first afternoon of Spring.
It’s a full-blown beautiful English summe day on the cover and step-back of Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James, and the story she tells this time around is a typically summery affair, regardless of when the book is appearing in bookstores. It’s the story of Eugenia Snowe, the proprietress of Snowe’s Registry Office for Select Governesses, the wonder of the Ton for the quality and discretion of the governesses it supplies to the wealthy and powerful of London. Training these young women is a round-the-clock job, as is dealing with the logistics of placing them; all manner of complications can arise, as Eugenia’s assistant makes clear in one of book’s countless peppy exchanges:
“You have the Duchess of Villiers, and I squeezed in Lady Cogley after that.”
“Is there a problem in Her Grace’s nursery? I thought Sally Bennifer was very happy there.”
“Sally has accepted a proposal from the vicar. He must have behaved in a most unvicarish fashion, because she needs to marry spit-spot. Ergo, the duchess needs a replacement.”
“Is ‘unvicarishly’ a word?”
“I suppose not,” Susan said. “But the man took his post only a few months ago, so he must have jumped on Sally like a cat on raw liver.”
One person who’s got the nerve to find fault with one of Eugenia’s girls is Theodore Edward Braxton Reeve, known to his friends as Ward. He’s the son of the Earl of Gryffyn, and he’s committed the incredible act of firing a Snowe governess. He’s come to Eugenia’s agency in search of a new one, and the predictable chemistry strikes up between them, despite the fact that initially Ward is insufferably high-handed in his dealings with non-aristocratic folk like Eugenia, who reflects, “It was unfortunate that the conjunction of a penis and privilege had such an unfortunate effect on boys …”
The admitted failure of that line to land – the two key words would be funnier if they were transposed, and there’s that thudding repetition – is very unlike Eloisa James, and it’s the kind of thing that shows up with dismaying frequency throughout Seven Minutes in Heaven, which often feels a bit dashed-off. But even dashed-off Eloisa James is still a pure summery delight – especially when weighed against the backdrop of an oncoming snow-monsoon.