Book Review

Duchess by Design by Maya Rodale

I really adored so many things about Duchess by Design. I loved the heroine. I loved that she had a circle of female friends who support and protect her. I love the idea of subverting the patriarchy through fashion. I love the fact that this was set among the Four Hundred in Gilded Age New York City.

Where I struggled was the hero. And let me be clear, my struggle was likely reflective of my current mood and tastes as a reader, not of any flaw in the writing. The hero, a duke, spends most of the novel learning to understand what a place of privilege he comes from, and to not take that privilege for granted. That’s a good journey for a hero. My issue is that right now, right in this moment, I have exactly zero patience for men who need to be taught about gender inequality and rape culture by women. And I don’t want to read a romance wherein all that education and labor is performed by the heroine so that the hero can level up to be worthy of her time.

This is very much a Cinderella story–if Cinderella designed her own dress, was working to smash the patriarchy one pocket at a time, and had zero inclination to get married. Adeline Black is an aspiring dressmaker, and she’s finally gotten her first client among the Four Hundred. If her design takes off, it could set her up with her own business and a successful career doing what she loves.

Adeline made her way out of the tenements through hard work and sheer grit. Dressmaking isn’t a job for her, it’s a passion. Her designs have tiny alterations that, while conforming to the fashion of the day, make it easy for women to move and breathe and basically exist with some level of comfort. She even sews small, hidden pockets in her dresses, an addition that her clients are mad for. Imagine being able to carry shit and not need a man for that! Imagine carrying your own money.

Adeline is visiting one of her clients at a hotel when she meets Brandon Fiennes, Duke of Kingston, in the elevator. Kingston is in New York to secure a wealthy bride. His family seat is bankrupt, creditors are calling, and he has a responsibility to keep his family and property glittering and gilded. They share a brief flirtation that results in a walk in the park. The duke thinks Adeline is an heiress. Adeline thinks she’s going on a walk in the park with a handsome man and that’ll be the end of that.

It’s not the end of that.

The duke finds out Adeline isn’t wealthy. He has a temper tantrum because he’s embarrassed or his feelings were hurt or some other expression of man feels that are completely unnecessary:

The logical portion of his brain was still functioning and it informed him that this was all a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a laugh. He was not that invested–after all, it had been just a walk in the park. He should have no further business with her, especially of the sort that necessitated touching her, even if it was only his big hand and her small wrist.

None. At. All.

Her gaze traveled slowly and pointedly from the sight of his hold on her, up the length of his arm, and came to rest on  his face. She fixed her cool, unflinching eyes on him. Kingston let her go.

“If you’ll excuse me, I must return to the shop,” she said. “Miss Burnett, we will have the rest of your wardrobe ready within the week.”

She left.

And then he followed.

Kingston could scarcely believe it, but he couldn’t stop himself. He was a peer of the realm, one of the highest-ranking men in one of the greatest countries in the world: he was Kingston. She was just a girl, just a seamstress. But there he was, taking one determined step after another, his footfalls silent on the plush carpet in the corridor. He was mesmerized by the rustle of her skirts as she walked away from him.

He had questions, that was all.

He would never see her again, certainly.

Isn’t he a peach.

Then Adeline gets fired from her job because Kingston is following her around and her boss (who is a jerk to start with) doesn’t like it and thinks Adeline is a loose woman.

Part of Kingston’s education is understanding that his version of poverty–needing to marry an heiress so he can fix the roofs on all his houses, is very different than Adeline’s version. She might not have enough money for food. She might have to turn to prostitution to survive.

The fact that Kingston needs that explained to him didn’t endear him to me.

Fortunately Adeline is rescued by her former client Miss Burnett. Miss Burnett and other women of means have a secret club where they help women achieve professional success. The idea is that placing women in prominent professional positions, quietly and secretly, helps forward the cause of feminism. Adeline and her subversive dress shop is exactly the sort of thing they fund.

And while Adeline should probably stop talking to Kingston all together, she agrees to be seen in public with him in order to show off her designs, which earns her customers among the elite. In exchange she’ll help him decide on a good future duchess. Then they fall in love. Obviously.

But Kingston can’t be with Adeline because he needs a wife who comes with a lot of money, and marrying him would never work out because she’d have to quit the job she loves. I’ll admit, it’s a pretty good conflict.

Kingston is less of an asshat as the novel progresses, but it’s through the education and the perspective that Adeline gives him. He’s friends with a guy who is a complete Bro and Kingston doesn’t understand, until the very end of the book, that when Gilded Age Bro flirts with Adeline and maybe cops a feel, she has to laugh and smile or he won’t pay for all his wife’s dresses and it’ll bankrupt her. Kingston doesn’t understand that maybe she doesn’t want Gilded Age Bro’s attention but she can’t act on it because she’s inherently unsafe. And Adeline has to be the one to explain and educate him. There’s very little initiative on his part – unless his hurt manfeels are involved, which is a terrible basis for his improvement.

Quite frankly, I’m sick of explaining this shit to men in my own life. And I didn’t enjoy Adeline having to spend so much time and energy explaining her existence and her vulnerabilities to the hero, who needs that education because he’s upset about his feels. His renovation as a character is relentlessly self-centered, the effort to reframe his worldview falls to Adeline to construct, and that work is very much one-sided. He doesn’t seek to improve himself or understand her. She has to fix him, and as a result, it was exhausting to read about.

And while that sounds like a lot of disappointment and fatigue, the thing was, I loved Adeline and the other women in this novel so much that it almost offset it. Honestly, I didn’t need the romance. I would read about Adeline’s dress shop all damn day.

I loved the descriptions of fashion and of how Adeline was changing things for women one pocket at a time. I loved the secret society of women promoting women. I loved Adeline’s friends who do not put up with Kingston’s shit at all. I loved that the women of the Four Hundred, who could have been portrayed as snooty or shallow or just foils for Adeline, were all nuanced and progressive in their own ways. All of the women in this book, with the exception of Adeline’s former employer, are allies. It felt so safe and supportive to read.

I just felt like Kingston didn’t deserve to be a part of Adeline’s world. He was never good enough for her or for the women around her. In a novel where nearly every other character elevated the story around them, Kingston dragged it down. I was frustrated that half the work Adeline had to accomplish was to improve him with alterations to his character. She had better things to do.

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Duchess by Design by Maya Rodale

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  1. Tam says:

    …but why is a Duke called BRANDON? Is he secretly a time-travelling Californian born in the late ’90s?

    (I know, I always get derailed by ahistorical names!)

  2. Hope says:

    @Tam – Isn’t it common for aristocrats to have given names that are actually family surnames? I’m thinking Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility indicates Brandon was a usual enough surname.

  3. Robot says:

    This book sounds super frustrating! I would much rather read a book where a man improves himself rather than one where a woman improves him.

    This makes me think in contrast of Cat Sebastian’s A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, where the richer, more middle class white hero has to learn to recognize how class and race affects his lover, a black man who owns a tavern. He gets it wrong sometimes, and the way that he expresses his consideration for his partner doesn’t always work, but he’s trying and he doesn’t make “explain how the world actually works” his partner’s sole burden. No one is born fully understanding the systems of patriarchy and white supremacy that constrain us, and if they are less visible to you because of your societal position, or class, or race, or gender, then it makes sense that you blunder through it, or have to learn. But neither do you have to be taught. Some of the work is your own.

  4. LauraL says:

    To me, the Victorian/Gilded Age had to have been one of the worst times for women to deal with patriarchal views. And with a Queen ruling England! I love the idea of a subversive group of wealthy women giving a hand up to other women. Brandon, oops the Duke, getting schooled by Adeline seems like a timely storyline for today.

    Elyse, thanks for a thought-provoking review. I have added Duchess by Design to my TBR.

  5. CelineB says:

    I loved this book. I was okay with Kingston having to learn everything because it seemed pretty accurate that someone would have to have to explain things to him in order for him to see past his bubble. I think I was just so happy to see a man actually listen and be willing to see past his own viewpoint that I found it refreshing compared to so many men (and women for that matter) I’ve had to deal with recently which is pretty sad. Maybe it’s because I live in a place where my views are very different than the majority of people around me so I’m constantly having to try to make people see a different point of view and most just aren’t willing to even try.

    Kingston’s handling of finding out that Adeline wasn’t who he thought she was is the weakest part of the book, but I probably gave it a bit of a pass since so many other books have handled similar situations worse and because I loved the rest of the book so much.

  6. Emily A says:

    Yeah, I was just trying to talk to someone with different views, and I feel like a failure as liberal/white ally/feminist/christian ally. I’m not the best commnicator, and I probably didn’t any good.

  7. Ren Benton says:

    @Emily A: All you can do is try. It’s not your failure if you don’t get through to someone who doesn’t want to be gotten through to.

  8. Starling says:

    This is the kind of review I need, because I am trying to do less rage and more self-care.

  9. Louise says:

    I can’t be the only one who is wildly conflicted by the cover.

    On the one hand: Ooh, yummy.

    On the other hand: Gilded Age? Uh, nope, I Don’t Think So.

  10. Ms. M says:

    @Hope And even beyond that, Brandon was the name of a fairly renowned family,_1st_Duke_of_Suffolk

  11. LMC says:

    @Louise, I agree, though still better than that awful Dress Barn dress on the Lisa Kleypas cover!

    There so many beautiful clothes (and hair) from different periods, I don’t know why they all have to look look like prom dresses. Give me some costume squee!

  12. Tam says:

    Usually the surname-as-first-name aristocrat trend was to indicate connection with important old dynasties – the Percies of Northumberland, for example. You’d see a lot of the old Norman aristocratic names used as first names (Fitzwilliam, Fitzallen etc). I’ve just never seen ‘Brandon’ used as a first name before late twentieth-century America. It’s as odd as a nineteenth century Chelsea or Whitney (hypothetically possible, but extremely unlikely).

    I just wish authors would bother to check what kinds of names you’d see on Dukes and Earls, historically. It is EXTREMELY unlikely that an English Duke would have an Irish name like Aidan or Declan or Brendan, for example.

  13. Dietz123 says:

    “She has to fix him.” My wise mother taught me never to get romantically involved with someone thinking, “oh, he’ll change when…” or worse, “I’ll change him.” Now, DH and I have matured a lot in our 15 year marriage, but that’s self-driven change. The reviewer points that out nicely. Change driven by external pressure from a partner is seldom permanent, and nearly always resented. Because we usually want to be accepted for who we are.

    I’d prefer to read about a hero who’s empathetic, perceptive, and has the flexibility to question what he’s been taught on the basis of his observations.

    To me, the most painful part of patriarchy is watching young women live down to it.

  14. Lisa F says:

    I ranked this one higher and loved every bit of it. I didn’t find it too preachy at all, and it’s less about her fixing him than her showing him solutions to problems that are under his nose but he’s too reluctant and privileged to notice. He mostly comes to the conclusion on his own.

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