Review: “An Inconvenient Duchess”, by Christine Merrill

inconvenientduchess_christinemerrillFinal Rating: twocupscropped of tea that filled me with the overwhelming urge to procrastinate.

Hoo, boy. This book. Issues, it has them.

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: This is a Harlequin romance. I didn’t realize that when I first downloaded it for free off of Amazon. But apparently it’s something called a “Harlequin Historical”, which is the first I’ve heard of such things.

What I have heard is that Harlequin romances are consistently awful; essentially just cheap bodice-rippers that serve no purpose other than to clutter grocery store shelves. I’ve heard this largely from people who read/have read them, so I generally take it to be true. For myself, I think this is the first Harlequin book I’ve ever read… despite most people assuming Harlequins are all I read, due to my gender. (Dumbasses.)

That said, I was surprised to find that this is a fairly competent book, aside from the characters. The writing style was solid. No baffling page breaks, or sudden leaps in time. There was zero purple prose. Not even so much as a quivering member, or heaving bosom. (Which I didn’t even think was possible) In fact, I’d describe the sex scenes as a bit rushed, but otherwise quite enjoyable. I was even OK with the plot, and the setting, though I really wish the author had made it clearer at what point in history this book took place. (Really, all I have to go on is the attire of the characters on the cover, which I’d guess are 1910-ish?)

So why, with all of this, does this book receive such a low rating?

The fuckin’ characters, that’s why.

First and foremost we have Marcus, Duke of Haughleigh. Since I couldn’t be bothered to type “Haughleigh”, well, ever, I dubbed him “Duke Phlegm.” His love interest is Miranda Somethingorother, who I dubbed Lady Rain since she arrived at Phlegm’s family home soaking wet thanks to being caught out in a rainstorm. Other players include Phlegm’s younger brother, St. John, (who I dubbed Captain Rakepants since he spends the entire book trying really, really hard to be the typical dashing rake) Phlegm’s sickly mother who dies after the first chapter, and Lady Rain’s two parents, one of whom is a whore and the other of whom is an ex-gambler.

The latter is the reason for Lady Rain showing up in Phlegm’s living room unexpectedly: Daddy gambled away all of his fame and fortune, so she’s on the hunt for a rich husband so that she can, y’know, eat. It’s apparently either this or the whorehouse, since her previous jobs as a servant didn’t work out because the Lords of the house couldn’t keep their hands off her boobs. (Literally.) Rain’s not too keen on the idea of marrying simply for money, but she feels too guilty (and hungry) to refuse. Her mother paves the way for her to meet Duke Phlegm by blackmailing Phlegm’s evil mother with Dark Secrets, not expecting that Rain will arrive in his home after his mother has already died.

Meanwhile, Duke Phlegm is a bitter, angry old-ish man. Most of his anger comes from the fact the author decided to put his first wife and unborn child into a refrigerator, thus providing him with a lot of Manpain. (To be fair, I’d be cranky too.) He hates his brother with a passion, and isn’t super thrilled to see a lady-stranger in his living room. Because he and his brother are–in his own words–a pair of “unrepentant rakes”, and Lady Rain was seen going into their house unchaperoned, the only available option is to marry her immediately so that her dignity may be “protected”.

Yes, you heard right: He literally marries Lady Rain overnight because she showed up in his living room.

ROMANCE, EVERYBODY.

But it gets better! About 75% of the book follows this formula:

  • Lady Rain, meaning well, does something
  • Duke Phlegm gets angry, shouts at her or threatens to lock her in her room
  • Lady Rain yells at him in return, then runs away to worry/feel anxious
  • Duke Phlegm goes to sulk somewhere for awhile, and starts an inner monologue in which he chides himself for being such a “brute”; thinks about how hot Rain is; then tries to think of ways to get her to sleep with him with a “minimum of fuss” (THIS IS AN ACTUAL LINE IN THE BOOK)
  • Goes to buy Rain a gift or do something nice for her by way of apology
  • Gets upset when she doesn’t immediately forgive him/fawn over whatever he’s bought
  • Cycle repeats

If this creepy-ass circle of stupidity seems familiar, it’s probably because of this:

Cycle_of_Abuse

ROMANCE, EVERYBODY!

This happens so often during the book that it was literally as though Phlegm were two different people: The nasty, angry, immature, shouty asshole that appeared every time he opened his mouth…and the quiet, introspective, nicer individual that he sees himself as in his head. As a reader, it gave me a headache, because I quickly tired of seeing the same pattern over and over again. It also struck me as lazy writing, because I feel like there were other ways to make Phlegm “prickly” without romanticizing an incredibly abusive cycle.

Meanwhile, I loved Lady Rain’s character almost wholly; she’s a good woman stuck in a really shitty situation. She spends most of the book utterly terrified, mostly that her new husband is going to rape or beat her. (This fear is exacerbated by his constant yelling.) Things are complicated by the fact she has an incredibly strong sex drive, and gets pretty hot and bothered by the male attention she receives. She really seems to enjoy playing a submissive role in these encounters, which makes me wish that the author had been brave enough to make this a proper BDSM novel.

That might sound a bit strange, but bear with me. Not only would I loved to see a BDSM period romance, but it would have made a lot of sense for the characters. Phlegm likes to be domineering, Rakepants likes to “steal” things which belong to his brother, and Rain likes to be dominated. These traits are apparent in each of their private fantasies. I can see that going all kinds of deliciously kinky ways which would have been enjoyable and showed a healthy, consensual relationship instead of the creepy domineering crap that ended up happening.

But nope! Instead we get several hundred pages of Phlegm throwing hissy fits and Lady Rain having miniature panic attacks because of them. Yippee.

By the end of the book, of course, Duke Phlegm changes his Grumpy Ways and turns into the kind, loving man we all know he could be. (Insert collective eye-roll here.) And what irritated me is that I genuinely wanted to be happy for Lady Rain…but the fact that Phlegm had spent so much of the book as an Absolute Asshole, and then changed into a kind fellow FOR NO REASON AT ALL was too much of a gap for me to bridge. There is literally no transition point for him between Asshole and Cool Dude. It just happens. One chapter, he’s an ass, and the next he’s the doting husband. What the fuck.

All in all, I feel like An Inconvenient Duchess had a lot of potential which was wasted in order to shoehorn it into whatever the hell a Harlequin Historical is. I also feel like it was an incredibly creepy example of life imitating art, and yet another instance where a “romance” novel chooses to glorify abusive relationships. Worse yet, I had a hard time getting through the book because it was so damn easy to put down. Hell, I even put off writing this review for a full day after I finished reading it. That alone speaks volumes.

Give this one a pass.

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