The Duke
by Gaelen Foley, historical (2000)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-449-00636-0


I find it rather ironic that Mary Jo Putney's recommendation on the front cover ("Sizzling and sexy.") will ultimately be the one albatross that will hang around The Duke's neck. Comparisons to Ms Putney's Dearly Beloved just cannot be avoided now, although Dearly Beloved is mostly internal-conflict-based while The Duke has both external and internal conflicts bringing the proud nobleman and his mistress together.

It is also worth pointing out that the external conflict bringing the two together stands on very shaky foundation. Likewise, the story takes a long time to find itself, making it one of the weakest books ever to make my Keeper grade. But after the last few chapters that leave me utterly satisfied - they are powerfully emotional - there is no way I am going to let this book go to some UBS bag or some other horrible fate that awaits mediocre books.

Do bear with the rather clumsy first few chapters, where Belinda Hamilton is selling oranges and fending off the advances of horny toads to survive poverty. Her father, a useless idiot, is in debtor's prison, thinking his daughter living some happy life. Instead, the said daughter is raped by the prison warden. Since she's ruined, well, Belinda may as well be a demirep queen like Harriette Wilson.

Bel has an unwanted suitor too, Dolph, who is wanted by scowling nobleman Robert Knight, the Duke of Hawkscliffe, to avenge the death of the woman he has a big, big crush on. Dolph wants Bel, so Robert strikes a bargain with Bel. She be his mistress in name only (hah!) and they will drive Dolph crazy. How's that?

In name only - hahahahahahaha! Oh, they're serious?

They really think this in-name only thing can work?

The Duke treads a fine line between mediocrity and supreme storytelling in the first half. All the familiar elements are trotted out - tarts with hearts of gold and the depiction of the life of a demirep so beautiful and tinted pink that I am tempted to take it up myself were I a million years younger. I mean, how bad can a life be where all the men adore Bel instead of wanting to use her, waiting on her hand and foot as she actually indulges in the luxury of picking her own man? Wow.

I would have fallen asleep if not for the author's tendency to keep surprising me with unexpectedly beautiful scenes when I am not expecting them. I'm not complaining this time, as I love this sort of surprises. There are a few quiet scenes between Robert and Belinda that really sing (such as pages 120-121, pages 162-169 OH MOMMA). Both are nice people who really are perfect for each other, and the chemistry shows it.

Still, it doesn't seem right so far. I get this feeling that the author is still trying to figure out where she is going. For instance, for a cold and calculative man, Robert's obsessive need to avenge Lucy is way out of his character, and there is never a well-done attempt to explain why Lucy captivated Robert so. Put in two stray kids whose purpose or place in the story is never made clear and I groan - do we really need this supernanny angle too? (There's also a brief attempt at making Bel a crusader for the welfare of warehouse workers, although this one is thankfully aborted soon after.) It is as if the author is trying on all the cliché dresses, trying to see which will fit.

Only in the later half does the story finally flows free from its earlier timid hesitations and reservations. Things happen, emotions flow hard and border on obsession, and Robert throws his head back and howls at the moon because fate and responsibilities keep taking Bel away from him. Robert comes to life, Bel - well, she tries (she's a bit of a stereotypical goody woman with predictable thought trains and behaviors, but she's a well-done stereotype) to keep up and succeeds to an extent. I stop breathing for as long as I can, enthralled as these two finally drop all the romance conventions they have been following and actually behave like people wildly, passionately in love. Gaelen Foley can write about mad, bad, obsessed heroes and passionate women so well that Robert beating up - okay, trashing that sorry scumbag SOB of Bel's rapist that evening after she told him of her rape, until the rapist maggot is on the ground whimpering for mercy, and then he trashing that fellow some more - that seems like the most romantic gesture in the world.

At these moments, The Duke manages to shake off the ghost of Dearly Beloved and be itself - a very good Gaelen Foley novel. A powerful romance that actually dares to push a little at the conventions it adheres to so faithfully for the first half. It is as if Ms Foley has suddenly realized, "That's it, I can't hide my voice and style anymore, toss the formula - let's paaaarrrtttttttyyyy!"

Then she has to add in a rather annoying miscommunication problem, that while rings true, serves only to cheapen their deep trust and feelings for each other. Oh well. But the resolution of this final conflict leads to a wonderful proposal that has me laughing and crying a little at the same time.

In a way, The Duke is like a crazy lil' oddity. It can be bad and good at the same time, and when it is good, oh, it is as if the world just stops and sings me a love song. This is scary: imagine what the author can do should she find her own voice!

Rating: 90


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