Reading bestie Kelly from Reading With Analysis and I loves us some Tessa Dare novels. In fact, our entire friendship started over a shared love of Susanna, the heroine with a lopsided breast from A Night to Surrender. We duel reviewed her Stud Club trilogy and have each read all of the books in her Wanton Dairymaid trilogy and Spindle Cove series. Her books are filled with awesomely flawed heroines, imperfect heroes, and a great blend of humor and sexiness not often found in other romance novels. When Kel and I found out about the hero and heroine of her latest novel, Romancing the Duke, we instantly knew we had to read and review it together.
As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.
And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.
Ugly duckling turned swan?
Abducted by handsome highwayman?
Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?
No, no, and… Heh.
Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head. What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?
Kim: Tessa Dare’s novels are always a treat. As I mentioned above her heroes and heroines are flawed and don’t follow the typical romance model (this gives her A+ marks in my book already.)
You see, she gives voice to the wallflowers, the physically impaired, the women considered to be unattractive, etc. Her heroes don’t all look like Adonis either. Some were raised in extremely impoverished conditions, others are fops, or “damaged goods” from partaking in active war duty.
In Romancing the Duke our hero, Ransom, is blind, distrustful, and scarred from the ugliness that exists in life. And our heroine Izzy? She’s impoverished, starved for affection and love, and is way ahead of her time intellectually. Yet she’s also a woman who dreams with an imagination that could rival a child’s. Their pairing makes for what I think is Dare’s best novel to date.
Kelly: Tessa Dare is known for her humorous writing, but her books are definitely not light. It is remarkable how she is able to balance hilarity with depth, to produce a story that is wildly entertaining and intellectually compelling. It seemed to me while I was reading it that this book clearly shows how much Dare has grown as a writer over the years, but then I got to thinking about her earlier books, and I realized that the sophistication was always there — I just paid more attention to the humor than the underlying material.
Kim: I fully agree! Her humor and sophistication was always present, but something about this novel showcased it in a new way. It’s without a doubt the best thing she’s written to date, and her other novels were all stellar in their own right. And that humor Kelly talks about? Dare found fantastic places to infuse it into the story.
Part of the plot of the story is that Izzy is given Ransom’s castle as part of a bequeathment from her father’s patron. Since the accident that rendered Ransom blind, he hasn’t seen his solicitors in London. He finds it implausible that his castle has been sold without his permission and refuses to believe the documents giving Izzy ownership are genuine.
Kelly: So hijinks ensue while Izzy and Ransom dig through piles of paperwork to find out what happened and answer the age-old question: does Izzy own the castle? Along the way, Izzy and Ransom are joined by a roving band of LARPers whom Ransom disdains and Izzy finds charming, if slightly stifling. Eventually, Ransom is challenged to embrace the camaraderie of fandom to find unexpected kinship and the beginnings of true friendship with the brothers in the Order of the Poppy (the Knights of Moranglia), and Izzy is challenged to break free from her past and enter into true companionship without sacrificing her identity. Oh, and there’s a lot of romance.
Kim: Some of the funniest moments of the book come when this group of LARPers pose as Ransom’s servants. Izzy and Ransom find out that he will be visited by his solicitors, as well as a doctor to judge his mental well-being and ability to run his estate. Izzy sets up several plans to make sure that Ransom appears at his best. When a practice doesn’t go as well as she wants one of the Knights yells out
“It’s on to Plan E!…Plan E everyone! Who has the ermine?”
Kelly: Yes, and then later, during the actual examination with the doctors, the scheming solicitors, and the representative from the Lord Chancellor’s office,
“A shout lifted over all: ‘Release the ermine!’”
Kim: Romancing the Duke is my new favorite Dare novel. In ways it’s an anti-romance: blind hero, plain heroine, crumbling castle, bad first kiss……Yet for all the things that make it an anti-romance, it is filled with some of the most beautiful scenes and sentiments. The entire “Doubt Nots” sequence stuck out in my mind for its beauty. Also, the scene in which Izzy returns to her room and finds it filled with candlelight because Ransom knows she is afraid of the dark? Pure magic. It’s a romantic fan’s dream come alive.
Kelly: Dare took all these classic tropes of romance — the wounded hero — a Duke, for fuck’s sake — the plain but plucky heroine, the atmospheric castle, the chemistry and tension between the characters, the notion of characters saving each other and finding fulfillment in one another — and shook them together in a story that manages to be fun, heartwarming, and feel-good, while challenging one’s preconceived notions of how those tropes ought to play out. It is not so much this epic, magical love that saves the day, not so much the characters surrendering to their feelings for one another that brings about the positive ending. I mean, all of that helps, sure, but friendship is actually the lynchpin here, and it isn’t even a friendship between Izzy and Ransom. Izzy’s friendship with Abigail Pelham is one of my favorite things about the book, especially considering that everyone — Izzy included — would have expected them to be rivals rather than friends. And the emotional climax of the story, the “Doubt Not” sequence Kim mentioned above, is just as much a demonstration of Ransom’s solidarity with his newfound friends as it is a declaration of love for Izzy.
Kim: Friendship is SUCH a huge theme in this book. It’s friendship and not love that is the cause of everyone’s improved natures. Sure, love plays a part for Ransom and Izzy, but they’re more open to love because of their newfound friendships. Izzy & Abigail, Ransom & the Knights, Izzy & Ransom – all of these relationships afford them the opportunity to see the worth of love.
Kelly: I’d actually argue that it goes the other way around. (Here’s the moment where we hold up a chicken and an egg and then argue about it for hours and hours while y’all go read some other blog. Sorry!) I think love is actually the starting point. At first, there’s no friendship, really. Izzy and Abigail are nice to one another, but they aren’t really friends. And Ransom is contemptuous to everyone. Then Izzy and Ransom realize that they love each other, but that love by itself is not enough to overcome some of Ransom’s issues and his dukeliness (that’s totally a word), and he acts like a giant douche-pony in this totally dramatic way, pushing everyone away, straining all of these fledgling friendships, but not doing as much damage to the love between Izzy and himself. Then Ransom’s longtime (and long-suffering) valet tells him to stuff it, because Ransom’s behavior is antithetical to love, so Ransom does some thinking. And, after he thinks, he acts, and his first acts are acts of friendship. Likewise, Izzy begins to realize that she has a true friend in Abigail, largely because her love of Ransom (and his love of her) opens her up to the possibility of being herself and of still being accepted and loved.
Kim: If you’re wondering – this is the first time in a long time our dueling review has had a “duel” in it. I’m still of the mind that friendship is what opens them to love. There is certainly affection between Ransom and Izzy, but Ransom is completely blind to it. When his valet tells him to stuff it and then sits down and actually has a conversation with him, he discovers the depth of regard that his valet has always had for him. The same thing happens when he speaks to the Knights. He realizes he has all of these people around him that support him and want him to succeed and it’s this that finally allows him to tell Izzy his feelings (the “Doubt Nots” sequence.)
I agree with Kelly when she says that at first there isn’t a friendship between Abigail and Izzy. However, I believe that to be more true from Izzy’s perspective. I think Izzy considers Abigail to be a frenemy at first. Yet seeing her willingness to help Izzy and Ransom with their fixing up the castle and in the scheme with the solicitors – she discovers a woman very different from her first impressions. I think this also may be due to Izzy’s upbringing. Largely responsible for taking care of herself and her father, she doesn’t allow people to get close to her. She doesn’t understand the bonds of friendship and love.
Kelly: So, it’s possible that we’re actually fighting on the same side of this duel. Anyway, since Ransom’s and Izzy’s feelings of love (and even their awareness of those feelings) definitely preceded their confession of those feelings, I’m inclined to believe that their sudden interest and ability in developing friendships with the other characters (Abigail, the Knights, the valet, etc.) is born out of that love. Were I writing an academic paper about this book, that would be my thesis statement. (As an aside, I think one could — and should — write an academic paper about this book, perhaps comparing it to the romance tradition on which so many of its story tropes are based. OK, Internet: get on it.)
Kim: Regardless of which side of the duel you’re on, should you read this book you’ll definitely jump on our YAY FRIENDSHIP bandwagon. I think the reason I love friendship being such a huge part of this book is because it’s friendship in a Tessa Dare novel, and as I said earlier it’s a Tessa Dare novel that started my friendship with Kelly. Seeing Dare’s building of these relationships is extra special because it makes me think of how mine was built with Kelly!
Kelly: Yes! Me too, friend! This book is a celebration of all the things I hold dear: friendship, love, fandom, humor. It insists that romance, love, and friendship are valid and important in this world, that stories about these things add to our happiness, and that those of us who love these stories are not delusional or stupid. As the Lord Chancellor’s representative says,
“For God’s sake, man. They’re just stories. The rest of us here understand that.”
Kim’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Kelly’s Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare
Harper Collins (2014)
eBook: 384 pages