I’ve been having a lot of trouble finishing books recently. My mind is distracted, and while I can concentrate well enough on the things I need to do for work or around the house, my ability to fall into a book and lose myself there seems to have evaporated.
So when I found myself carrying my Kindle from room to room as I went about my business, reading with one eye on the screen while I replied to text messages or Facebook posts, propping it up against the knife block so I could read it while I chopped quinces (do not try this at home) or rolled out pastry, holding it in one hand while I stirred not-quite-spanakopita filling, and needing to set timers for everything because of my tendency to wander back to my room to read, forgetting that anything was on the stove… yeah, this book broke my reading slump alright. It completely captured me.
And yet, I’m struggling to articulate why.
It is, in many ways, a very classic, Georgian England-set historical, with a shy wallflower who charms a rather surly duke, initially by insulting him, and subsequently by being too adorable to resist. It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s very hot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I don’t actually know what to say about it other than yes, this is Eloisa James writing her usual delightful stories, and if you like that, you will like this.
Our wallflower is Viola, who is the daughter of Ophelia, the Duke of Lindow’s third Duchess, from a prior marriage. She was raised with the other Wilde children, and the Duke has always viewed her as his own, but she feels as though she isn’t a ‘real’ Wilde. Incidentally, Say Yes to the Duke is the fifth book in the Wilde family saga, but honestly, it stands alone pretty well. I’ve read the other books, but don’t remember them very clearly, and that didn’t affect my enjoyment of this story at all.
Viola is exceedingly shy – in addition to her insecurity about her place in the family (which appears to be based largely on what other people might be thinking about her rather than on anything the family has done or failed to do), she had a distressing experience that cemented her fear of public gatherings. She has no interest in marriage or a season… until five years after that experience, she develops a raging crush on the handsome, gentle new vicar.
Unfortunately, said vicar is already betrothed – to the odious Miss Pettigrew – but Viola is determined not only to become confident and socially adept for his sake, but also to rescue him from a marriage that she is certain will make him unhappy.
When Viola overhears Devin, the Duke of Wynter, speaking dismissively of her birth and supposed personality (he has not yet met her) to his uncle, she finds in herself an unexpected well of confidence and proceeds to roast him both demurely and very cleverly… which naturally piques his interest.
Devin, for his part, sees himself as a cold, emotionless and unlovable person. His father was notorious for his rages – he was verbally abusive, and continually challenged his friends to duels, killing more than one of them. His mother alternated between fighting her own corner and packing her bags and leaving, and Devin was raised largely by tutors. He didn’t get to go to school or university, though he has a passion for mathematics, and his only friends are his cousins. His intention is to marry the moderately pretty daughter of a Duke – any Duke will do for this purpose – and live relatively separate lives.
Viola and Devin’s story is a fairly straightforward one; they strike up a friendship, succumb to mutual attraction, and have to marry to avoid a scandal – though Devin had already expressed his intention to court Viola before this happens. Their main conflicts stem from the fact that Devin has a Dark Secret and a tendency to stew over things that bother him rather than just coming out and saying them. Fortunately, Viola has his number.
“I don’t want you to marry me out of sympathy or pity, Viola. I’m not Barty. Or Mr Marlow.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You are very emotional. Luckily for you, I’m used to drama from growing up with the Wildes.”
He physically recoiled. “I am not dramatic. Or emotional.”
He totally is, though. Viola also figures out pretty quickly that for all Devin’s talk about not knowing how to love has more to do with not recognising what love looks like than anything else. It’s pretty clear early in the book that he is falling for her.
“Do you think desire is enough?” she asked.
Somewhat to her surprise, he took a moment to think about it.
“I desire you. But I also admire you, Viola. The idea of marrying you is exhilarating, as if I’d solved Fermat’s Conjecture, the most complicated mathematical theorem that exists.”
For me, the main part of their story resolved itself in the first half of the book – yes, Devin still clearly had a lot of angsting yet to do, but it was clear to me that Viola could handle him, and they would be fine. And indeed she could, though the denouement fell a little flat for me – after all the build up and angst, it was all resolved very matter-of-factly.
But with their romance resolved, to my satisfaction at least, the problem of the vicar remained.
Clearly Marlowe, who is kind and conscientious and perhaps a little lacking in backbone, cannot possibly be permitted to marry the dour and rather shrewish Miss Pettigrew, especially when Viola’s friend Caitlin is clearly the perfect vicar’s wife-in-waiting, but how may the engagement be broken? Especially when neither of the principles seem willing (Miss Pettigrew) or able (Mr Marlowe) to do so.
This part was really fun – somewhere between a comedy of manners and a French bedroom farce, with Viola and Devin being a frequent and inadvertent audience to the progress of Marlowe’s relationships. They sneak into cupboards and spare rooms for romantic interludes and overhear rather less romantic ones; there are longing looks and unfortunately-timed appearances by farm animals; and there is a performance of one of the York Mystery Plays that is controversial and hilarious (and also pretty accurate – I went to one of these a few years back and while some of the plays were very dramatic and very moving, they contained plenty of things that Miss Pettigrew would certainly not have approved of). I love a good secondary romance, and this one was pretty adorable, though I did get a bit stressed worrying about how Marlowe would ever be able to break that engagement.
Overall, this is a charming, fun story, with characters I cared about and plenty to make me smile. And, as I said, it managed to break me out of my reading rut, which has got to be worth something. I don’t think it’s a perfect book – the main romance resolved itself rather early for my taste – but it is a highly enjoyable one, which I’ll certainly read again. It somehow managed to be a new book that had all the comfort of a book I’ve read and loved before, and that’s what I needed right now.