The Duchess' Lover
by Julie Beard, historical (2002)
Jove, $6.99, ISBN 0-515-13277-2


Julie Beard decides to tackle the May-December romance theme between a 40-year old Duchess and a much younger gardener in The Duchess' Lover. Then she bends over backwards trying to escape the nuisance of writing a romance by putting in what seems like a zillion external plot elements. This coming from the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Getting Your Romance Published - well, she got the "published" part right, at least.

What's the point of writing a May-December romance when the author then chickens out on the whole theme?

Olivia, Duchess Bradwurst - or is it Bradhurst? - has just lost her nasty, nasty - of course - hubby of 23 years. At 40, she is now free. On hubby's funeral day, Olivia weeps and weeps and weeps and collapses in the arms of Will Barnes, her gardener who just happens to be around. I guess somehow her clothes miraculously drop off and next thing I know, she's screaming, "I'm aliiivvveee!" as her nethers go into a Vesuvius explosion.

Cool.

That's it, basically. Oh, there's some nasty relative trying to stir up trouble, a butler who isn't above blackmailing his late employer's wife if he has to, Olivia's social reform crusades (free the factory girls!), and umm... I forgot something. What is it again? Oh yes! Will and Olivia. Or whatever's left of it.

See, Will is perfect. He may be a gardener, but he is an artist also. He is just like like Michaelangelo, except that he's straight. Olivia hires him to paint her house - not that way, people, eeeuw - and when she faces adversity that requires her to break down, Will is there to be her confidante and sexual doctor. He's sensitive, he says all the right encouragements, he is the perfect lover, he is the aristocrat inside, he is a social reformer that takes Olivia on the tour of the seedy and sad life of the lower classes, and he can probably walk on water and make manna fall from the sky if given time. He can do everything - except having a personality.

Well, Will may be the perfect vibrator Olivia needs, but this story doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. Olivia runs all over the place in her silly attempts to be a wonder woman of social crusades, oblivious to the fact that the not-too-subtle nasty relative is plotting a coup, and when her nerves fail, it's recharging her batteries time by boinging up and down Will's pogo stick. At the same time, Olivia makes a big fuss about how Will will never fit into her world - this after Ms Equality here is out to change the world, mind you.

But of course, fear not. Will will be moving up the social ladder soon enough. Is there any doubt that he won't? He and Olivia have a happy ending in the worst closing paragraph I have ever read in a romance novel for a long time:

They tugged and grabbed and laughed and reveled in each other as they made their way slowly to the ground, like young lovers in the throes of their first consummation. And just at the right moment, a flock of starlings took flight from a nearby grove, drowning in the ageless cries of ecstasy that came from the Duchess' Garden.

It's the capital D and G that did it for me. Gross - as if the whole lurid purpleness of the whole boinking in the undergrowth scene is not bad enough, now I am stuck with the image of a crying, moaning "Duchess' Garden". Eeeeuw.

By turning the virile young gardener into an asexual Deepak Chopra figure, Ms Beard has effectively emasculated her story. Instead of reveling in the whole May-December romance, she has Olivia running around apologizing for it. I wonder how this story will turn out in the hands of, say, Susan Johnson, but as it is, Julie Beard's romance is castrated in every sense of the word. It's too timid and too shy, and it tries so hard to drive my attention away from the May-December romance. Is there a point to this story, then?

Rating: 60


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