The Accidental Duchess, by Jessica Benson

>> Monday, September 06, 2004

I recently finished The Accidental Duchess (excerpt), by new-to-me author Jessica Benson.

Dear Reader,

I married the wrong man.

I had every intention of doing the thing right. Of saying my vows and walking out on the arm of Bertie Milburn. Nice, safe, easygoing Bertie. And that is precisely what I thought I had done.

But as it turned out, I’d been tricked! Tricked into marrying Bertie’s twin brother Harry, the Earl of Cambourne and (as my mother would insist on reminding me at every opportunity) future Duke of Winfell! And the shocking way in which I found out—on my wedding night, no less. . . well, it doesn’t bear repeating here!

And the truth is that Harry, who is my husband, but should not be, makes my hands shake and my heart pound in a way that Bertie never has and never will. Vexing, dangerously charming Harry, who won’t tell me why he had to marry me, why he insists on masquerading about town as his brother, or most bothersome still, why he won’t stop that annoying (and rather excitingly successful) habit of trying to seduce me!

What is a young lady to do?
I hate awful books, of course, but it's book like this one, ok books which have the potential to be excellent, but simply miss the mark, that frustrate me the most. My grade: a C+. I'd compare my reaction to this one with how I felt about Caroline Jewel's Lord Ruin. Both books squandered the opportunity to be excellent, but I'm definitely following these authors' careers.

The first chapter, in which Gwen discovers that she's been tricked and is now married to Cambourne, not Milburn, as she thought, was superb. Gwen's voice, her funny aside comments about the situation, her reactions what is going on, everything. It's also a deeply emotional scene, because it's perfectly obvious to us readers how Cambourne is feeling about it all, and I fell half in love with the guy right then.

Unfortunately, the book didn't manage to maintain this level after that. It wasn't too bad, it simply lost focus and lost itself in the ridiculous antics of a big cast of cartoonish secondary characters.

On the positive side, I liked very much the chick-lit feel this book had, with it's first person POV and a heroine who has some very nice girlfriends who support her in everything. I was surprised at how well the first person narration worked here. I'm not usually fond of it for romance, but I did enjoy it in this book, because Benson managed to make it quite clear to the reader what Cambourne was feeling, even when our narrator had no idea. And she did it without making Gwen look like an idiot. Plus, Gwen had a fresh, engaging voice, something vital in a 1st person. Benson also managed to create some very nice chemistry between her two protagonists.

The negatives are more numerous. The secondary characters were one of my main problems. While Gwen and Cambourne were real people, I got the feeling that the author actually meant to make the secondary characters cartoons. I see what she was trying to do and I guess this was meant to be funny, the way they had such exaggeratedly ridiculous reactions to things, acting like no normal person ever would (for instance, not even allowing that Gwen might be upset at being tricked), but it just didn't work for me. I'm thinking of Gwen's parents, her mother's friend Violetta, her friend Cecy's mother, even Milburn. I didn't find them funny, really, I just wanted to kill them all. After all, cartoon characters don't bleed... it wouldn't have made much of a mess. These people took up a large part of the book which could have been devoted to the much more interesting relationship between Cambourne and Gwen.

Cambourne and Gwen's relationship wasn't perfect, though. Cambourne, especially, drove me nuts with his foolish insistence on not telling Gwen what was going on. This was an instance where the Big Secret plot didn't work at all. There was absolutely no reason why Cambourne wouldn't tell Gwen, except to keep them apart for a while longer. It is his secret to tell! To top it all, once the secret is revealed to Gwen, it's simply brushed aside. Either it's important or not!

As for Gwen, as the story went by, I lost some sympathy for her. For a long while, she simply let things happen to her. To be fair, she did try to be proactive and find out what the hell was going on, but at the first difficulties, she gave up and went with the flow.

Even if this one didn't really satisfy, I'll be looking forward to the author's next.


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