Book Review

The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan

Content warning: racism, including the extra messy and painful kind that comes from people who love you and really ought to know better…

The Duke Who Didn’t is a complete delight. It’s a low-tension friends-to-lovers story set in a small English village over the course of three very busy days. (All Chloe’s days are busy.) The village is notable for two things – first, it has a very high population of Chinese, half Chinese, and other Asian immigrants and their British-Asian descendents, and second, it hosts an annual competition/festival called the Wedgeford Trials, in which villagers and a very large number of visitors from around England compete in three teams to… well, I’m not entirely clear what they do, exactly, but it involves hiding, finding, capturing and defending tokens belonging to the other teams.

Wedgeford is also notable for being owned by a Duke who seems to have forgotten about its existence, if the lack of rent demands are any indication.

As it turns out the Duke of Lensing has been visiting the village annually for over a decade now to attend the Trials, only everyone just knows him as Jeremy, or Posh Jim. And also, he didn’t come for the last two trials, because he was in love with Chloe Fong and didn’t know how to be serious about her in the way she needed. But now he’s back, and he wants to marry her, but he’s not sure how that’s going to work with the whole Duke thing, especially as he hasn’t quite managed to tell Chloe or anyone else about the whole Duke thing, or even the wanting-to-marry-her thing, and it’s all a bit of a mess really.

And anyway, Chloe has other priorities, chief among them enabling her father’s revenge on Messrs White and Whistler, the men who stole his sauce recipe, built a business out of it, and left him, penniless, to make his way in a foreign country.

Ever since then, he’d started to develop his own sauce. Something better, tastier, richer, more balanced. His cooking had always been excellent, but the addition of spite to every recipe had brought an extra level of brilliance.

Revenge, in this instance, is a dish best served with sauce….

Chloe YiLin Fong is a character after my own heart. She is a perfectionist who carries a clipboard wherever she goes and never reaches the end of her lists. She is tightly wound because she never has time to unwind, and also because she is very bad at saying no to people, and oh, I related so much:

Chloe had often planned theoretically perfect days. As long as every task took its expected time, down to the minute, she could manage everything. In practice, this has never actually worked, for the primary reason that Chloe was not perfect, and for the secondary reason that she wished she were. She wished it so hard that she made all her lists as if perfection were a given.

Chloe is also socially awkward in ways that felt very familiar. She thinks of herself as intrinsically intimidating, boring, bossy, and cold. Her earliest lists were about figuring out how to play with other children, and include things like ‘Smile. People like that’ and ‘Remember to laugh occasionally.’ While it wasn’t stated outright, I wondered if this was in fact the key to her perfectionism – a hope that if she did everything just right, and crossed everything off the list of how to please people, then people might like her. It’s actually sort of heartbreaking, because we see, time and time again in the book, that the people around her do love her and would really like her to relax occasionally.

“This is why I can never finish everything on my list,” Chloe groused. “Because nobody ever lets me. It’s always ‘eat dinner, Chloe,’ or ‘go to sleep, Chloe’ or ‘take a break and talk to me, Chloe.’ Do you know how much I would get done if other people would just stop?”

“Stop caring about you?” Her father rolled his eyes. “Hmm. Tell me how much you’d get done if you were starving. Start from the beginning.”

Speaking of the people who love Chloe, let’s talk about Jeremy, the Duke of Lansing. Jeremy’s father was a fourth son of a third son who never expected to inherit, and who met and married Jeremy’s mother when he was in Guangzhou, trying to persuade her parents to sell his employer some land. And then everyone between Jeremy and the dukedom died, and Jeremy’s Aunt Grace took her half-Chinese nephew under her wing and proceeded to try to mold him into… well, not a suitable heir, since that was clearly impossible, but into someone suitable enough that he might one day marry a nice English girl and have less unsuitable children.

(Gah, my teeth hurt just writing that, and it’s honestly no more fun when you read it in the book.)

Despite all of this, Jeremy has grown into this very sunny, charming, sweet-natured character with a surprisingly strong sense of self. Discovering Wedgeford – the one place he has never been unsuitable! – at the age of twelve, was part of it; his mother’s letters, exhorting him to ‘root out every poisonous vine’ are another. And, like many clever children who grow up on the edges of their social groups, he has learned that being funny and not appearing to take yourself too seriously is the road to social acceptance, and so he has become really, really good at that. This both charms Chloe and drives her right up the wall.

I love Jeremy and Chloe together – they complement each other perfectly. Jeremy loves Chloe not in spite of her intensity and prickliness and her lists but because of them, and he knows her well enough to realise that the hardest part of persuading her to marry him (well, apart from the Duke stuff) will be convincing her of this.

“Mmm. I must quibble. You’re not hard. You’re determined.”

Chloe’s pencil pressed painfully against her fingers where she gripped it. “I see little difference.”

He ignored this. “And you’re not prickly. You’re decided. You’re the last thing from hard and prickly; you’re the most thoughtful person I know.”

Her eyes stung for a moment. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. He wasn’t supposed to take her worst qualities and turn them upside down in this way.

“You’ve said nothing about intimidating,” she said. “I see you don’t dispute that.”

“Not in the slightest.” He looked into her eyes. “I want my wife to intimidate me. I want to know that her enemies will all fall before her. That’s the kind of woman I want by my side. She had better be intimidating.”

And he means that. Jeremy has always used self-deprecation as his primary social tool, and he needs Chloe’s fierceness and determination just as much as she needs his acceptance and ability to make everything feel lighter. He is determined to show her, at every turn, that she is worth making an effort for – that, perhaps, rather than needing to be perfect for everyone else, she should be expecting more from others.

“Chloe… it’s your decision. But please. Please never kiss a man who doesn’t think you deserve his effort.”

I love the way this sentence combines deep tenderness with absolute respect for Chloe’s boundaries.

Chloe’s relationship with her father was lovely, and almost as important to the story as her relationship with Jeremy. I feel like we don’t see a lot of close, loving relationships between parents and their adult children in romance novels – perhaps because in romance fiction, finding love is often associated with leaving the nest and starting a new family unit? But the relationship between Chloe and her Ah Ba was beautifully drawn. There is, of course, love, which is inextricably bound up with food:

“Stop,” her father said. But the corner of his mouth curled up. “Stop dreaming. Start eating. You’re too skinny.”

She had never been anything of the kind. But this was what love looked like between them—him cooking her food so perfect that she could cry, while he frowned at her and told her she was too skinny. When she’d been teased as a child for her lists, he’d been there for her, perfecting his sauce as best as he could, serving up plate after plate of food so good that it almost defeated her loneliness.

And speaking of food, you need to know right now that the level of food porn in this book is EPIC:

The rice in the clay pot was perfect, little holes made by rising steam separating fluffy, individual grains. In the other bowl, fried into soft golden wedges, was a swirl of long strings of salted, preserved radish bound together with beaten egg, dotted with green scallions. Once, those scallions would have been sliced into paper-thin circles. Now that it was harder for him to hold the cleaver, the little green flecks were somewhat larger. She took a wedge.

“Mmm.” Her first mouthful of egg was soft and fluffy in perfect counterpoint to the salty, chewy radish. The scallions lent a pungency to the dish, no matter their size. “So good, Ah Ba.”

“You would be able to eat more if you spent less time praising the food.” His words were stern, but the corners of his eyes crinkled in pleasure.

But love is complicated in families, and it is perhaps at its most complicated when negotiating that change in dynamic that happens when a child reaches adulthood. Ah Ba has always been Chloe’s only parent and protector, and, as he says ‘your hunger is also my hunger’. Her needs have always been primary to him, and he finds it hard to accept any reciprocation of her care. Meanwhile, Chloe is just as fiercely protective of him, worrying about his arthritis, devoting herself to his revenge project, and reflecting at one point that if only she had been old enough when he had met White and Whistler, she could have prevented him from being swindled. Neither of them is any good at all at accepting help from the other, honestly. Or, really, from anyone else. (A big theme of this book really is ‘For God’s sake, let other people help you sometimes, you don’t have to do everything yourself.’)

I also liked that even though Chloe and her father have a very warm, affectionate, respectful relationship, and work closely together on the sauce, they still manage to fundamentally misunderstand each other in painful ways. Love isn’t all-conquering, not even love and respect – people relate to each other in ways they learn as children and sometimes assumptions are never examined.

Speaking of families, something I liked which I hadn’t seen before was Chloe’s relationship with her mother, who died when Chloe was only a baby. Chloe has a family shrine with an ancestral tablet for her mother, and part of her daily routine is paying her respects to her mother, which includes talking to her and sharing her day. Ancestor worship isn’t something that’s part of my cultural or spiritual background, but I found the way it was depicted here deeply touching. It seems like such a lovely, functional way of dealing with grief and of maintaining that connection to loved ones whom we have lost, as well as being an acknowledgment of the relationships we have with the ancestors we did not know, but who formed the people who formed us.

The Duke Who Didn’t also has a lot to say about the experience of being an immigrant, of being the child of immigrants, and of being seen as a foreigner in one’s own country. Appropriately, this, too, is first expressed through food, when Mr Fong explains that his sauce is British:

“It’s extremely British,” Mr Fong said. “I didn’t have qu after White and Whistler tossed me out, and no way to get it from China.”

“You didn’t have… qu…?” Jeremy didn’t know if the word was Hakka, or if it was one he’d never acquired in Cantonese.

“Kuk,” Mr Fong tried, and when Jeremy shook his head blankly: “The… thing used in fermentation?”

He said this in English, before switching back to Cantonese. “I didn’t have any. That meant I had to cultivate my own. This sauce is British.

“I don’t understand.”

Mr Fong looked at him, as if wondering about the quality of his education, before sighing. “You see, qu grows everywhere. We cannot see it, not with our eyes, not until we’ve given it time to grow into molds, to know whether it will become poison or leavening or an agent of fermentation. People have known this since the dawn of civilisation. The things that cause fermentation… They exist everywhere, as long as you give them a place to grow.”

“I… see.”

“But they are not the same everywhere.” Mr Fong looked over at Jeremy in the dark. “Nothing I have cultured anywhere will ever taste like it was made with the qu from Look King, the village where I grew up. Nothing here in England has ever tasted like Guangzhou or Nanjing or Trinidad. And the culture that grows here in Wedgeford tastes just a little different, too. This sauce is British. This taste has been here all this time, waiting for Britain to discover it.”

This passage spoke to me very profoundly. There is homesickness in it – the idea that you can literally taste your home and the loss of it felt really poignant to me. But it is also, I think, a metaphor for the experience of being transplanted, of growing up as a foreigner, shaped by invisible cultural forces that make you a different person to the person you might have been if you had grown up in the place you were born. And it declares very firmly that this makes you, in every way that matters, a part of and a citizen of your new country – Jeremy may be half Chinese, but he is also British, because he would never have become the person he is now if he had lived his life in China. Nurture is more important than nature.

On a lighter note, this story is full, in fact, of lighter notes. There is a lot of humour – Jeremy has a delightful way of expressing himself, and his teasing of Chloe is both tender and very funny. And Mr Fong is slowly revealed to be an even bigger troll than Jeremy – there were a number of scenes that were pretty funny on first reading, but utterly hilarious on a second reading, once you knew what was going on.

The story also delights in waltzing right up to classic romance genre tropes and then either subverting them or fulfilling them in the most upside-down way possible. Most of this happens late in the book, so I don’t want to say too much about it, but this was a book that felt very much in dialogue with the genre.

The Duke Who Didn’t was always going to be a book that made me happy. Humour, food, and a gentle hero who just wants the heroine to be less stressed are a pretty good formula for getting onto my keeper shelf. But it is, most especially, the book I needed right now, because this is a book that is deeply kind to its readers. Milan has written that she wanted to experiment with writing a book that had no Dark Moment, and this is that book. It wasn’t that there was no conflict, it was that the conflicts were located not between Chloe and Jeremy, but within each of them, and they helped each other to resolve them. For me, this made the story very relaxing to read.

This is a story about love, and family, and finding ways to grow into yourself, without being defined by the expectations of people who can’t see you properly. But above all, it’s a book about sharing burdens – about not having to do everything yourself and not having to be perfect in order to be loved.

I absolutely loved it.

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The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan

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  1. 1
    Blackjack says:

    Oh, this is a most welcome review! I’m about to start this book this week and will circle back and read the review carefully once I’ve finished.

  2. 2
    Emily says:

    I love Courtney Milan’s historicals and I think each one gets better. This was just so *nice* to read, while also making me cackle with glee.

  3. 3
    Qualisign says:

    “You see, qu grows everywhere. We cannot see it, not with our eyes, not until we’ve given it time to grow into molds, to know whether it will become poison or leavening or an agent of fermentation. People have known this since the dawn of civilisation. The things that cause fermentation… They exist everywhere, as long as you give them a place to grow.”

    Sourdough (starter) is a wonderful example of qu and quite a symbol of these times. It is also the site of homesickness for me as I will never be able to create the west coast sourdough of my youth here in New England. (I’ve tried.) The quote caught the complexity of place, loss and discovery of a new qu perfectly. It sounds like Milan has created another fundamentally profound narrative about the world and managed to do with without a Dark Moment. Thank you for this insightful review and to Milan for the book.

  4. 4
    Msb says:

    Can’t wait to read this!

  5. 5
    HeatherT says:

    I downloaded this yesterday morning and finished it late last night. Love, love, loved it — and now am inspired to find the cookbook that Ms. Milan references in the author notes and try my hand at cooking. This review is exactly right, and I like the insight that the desire was to write a romance without a Dark Moment. There IS conflict, but the two characters love each other from the first page, so the question is whether they can each have the courage and trust to be together. I’m going to be reading it again more slowly so that I can savor every minute.

  6. 6
    Escapeologist says:

    This heroine and her family dynamics are hitting so close to home, I hope I’ll be able to read the book… I’m super sensitive to that stuff and usually need a lot of humor and/or fantasy elements to lighten the mood. Tried to read Courtney Milan several times before, as I adore her Twitter (in small doses). Dang anxiety and PTSD interfering with my reading enjoyment again.

    Reminds me of this – hopefully it makes sense to someone else out there. Healing trauma works in mysterious ways.

  7. 7
    meg says:

    My only concern now is reading the book will not live up to this amazing review (but I’m really not concerned because I’ve loved every Milan book I’ve ever read).

    I *love* the idea of no Dark Moment. I inevitably prefer romances with internal conflict and/or external conflict of us vs. them instead of protag vs. protag – I tag them in Calibre so I can find them again; I just wish there were more of them.

    I pre-ordered this title and have been really looking forward to read it, but now I might just save it for a really rainy day.

  8. 8
    Shawna says:

    “people relate to each other in ways they learn as children and sometimes assumptions are never examined.”
    Dang, who’s been listening to their therapist!?
    So many of these themes hit home – checking boxes left and right. I’m stoked for this one.

  9. 9

    aaaaaaaaah ordering now. Not sure how I missed this intially but OMG this sounds uh-mah-zing.

  10. 10
    Lisa F says:

    Yesss I’m so excited to read this (am still on line for it at my library).

  11. 11
    Kareni says:

    This sounds wonderful. Thank you, Catherine, for the squee!

  12. 12
    DonnaMarie says:

    le sigh.

  13. 13
    Kris Bock says:

    It’s on my Kindle, but I’m trying to wait for a weekend. Must not start an amazing new book at 9:30 on a work night… Must not…

  14. 14
    Emily C says:

    I loved this book and devoured it too! My only complaint is the first chapter felt a little choppy, probably because we are sort of dropped in the middle of their relationship and I was slightly disoriented for a few pages.
    But once I caught up it was fun and sweetness and light, with a lovely dose of personal reflection, growth and the nuanced levels of family love told in a way that I’ve only found Courtney Milan can do.

    And I so don’t want to spoil it…. but the twist was so much fun! I had to go back and re-read some sections to see if I should have guessed it (like a great murder mystery without the murder!)

  15. 15
    ReneeG says:

    Great review! Finished this last night and loved it! It was a really comforting read for me and I so appreciated it.

  16. 16
    Emma says:

    Haven’t read the book yet (no ebook at my library!!!), but from the description, sounds like she’s eating a chai poh omelet. I love those too, so recipe time!!! (although no real measurements, because you just add however much feels right lol.)

    Beat 3 eggs. Add whole milk (or water, if that’s not your thing), chai poh (available at Asian stores, or you can make your own), salt, and pepper (I like white more, but black is good too). Beat the mixture some more and stop when you see bubbles. When the canola oil in your pan is hot, pour the mixture in. Chinese omelets are different from French omelets in that you WANT them to have brown spots, so the outside has some bite while retaining the fluffiness on the inside. My mom and I suck at flipping food over, so we just cut the omelet into wedges while it’s getting that nice brownness, and then flip over after a few minutes. It’s fine if it turns out you flipped too early, just flip it back later. Transfer the wedges to the pan and that’s it, done.

  17. 17
    Emma says:

    I forgot to say that if your chai po is already the salty kind (as opposed to the sweeter kind), you probably don’t need to add extra salt, unless you’re a real salt fiend.

  18. 18
    chacha1 says:

    I had this on pre-order so it is waiting for me next time I synch. Really looking forward to it. 🙂

  19. 19
    Maite says:

    I had pre-ordered it a while ago, and then when stuff started piling up this week, I knew I had this book to look forward to, and, well, expectations were high. For a Courtney Milan book.

    And I just Good Book noised my way through the book, needing to stop and go hug something and just feel my feelings because it felt *safe* to feel during this book. As if the accepting ways of Wedgeford spread out to me.

    And oh heavens, what you said about Chloe and her father “they still manage to fundamentally misunderstand each other in painful ways. Love isn’t all-conquering [….]”. More of this in romance please.
    (which also shows in a different way between Jeremy and his blood relations.)

    I would have loved this book at any moment, but I also adore that I can wish for more stories from Wedgeford without that needing bad things to happen to its inhabitants,

  20. 20
    maria f. says:

    This is the review I tried to write but without telling any of the plot. I loved the book and it took me two days to even think about picking up another.
    The whole book was love, from the dedications to the afterwords.

  21. 21
    Catherine Heloise says:

    Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone – it’s such a wonderful book, I’m glad that comes across.

    For those who were as fascinated by the food as I was (and @Emma, thank you for the chai po omelette recipe), I just thought you might want to know that Milan now has a Food Glossary on her website, with recipes. Including a recipe for the famous sauce.

  22. 22
    Catherine Heloise says:

    Chai poh! Apologies for the typo (typoh?).

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