Monday, 13 February 2023

CBR15 Book 6: "The Duke Undone" by Joanna Lowell

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Lucy Coover is on her way to her painting class at the Royal Academy one morning when she stumbles across a body in an alley. The man is completely naked, and she assumes he's been the victim of a crime. Then she realises he's breathing, so he seems to only be dead drunk. As a female art student, Lucy is fascinated by human anatomy but is also not allowed to ever attend life drawing classes at the Academy. She's late for class but also makes sure to get a good eyeful. This might be her only chance to ever study a naked man up close.

Several months later, Anthony Philby, the Duke of Weston is confronted in his office by a furious man pointing a gun at him. The man is convinced that the duke has had an affair with his wife, despite Anthony's vehement claims that he's never even heard of the woman. Because the angry man is a terrible shot, Anthony escapes with nothing but a nick on the arm, but shooting a duke is nevertheless a serious enough crime that he's able to pressure the man to show him his alleged proof, which certainly looks extremely damning. The mythological figure depicted in the painting, purchased by the man's wife, is clearly the duke of Weston's extremely naked form. Of course, Anthony has never posed nude for a painting and has no idea how this image could have been captured. The existence of the painting were it to come to light, would spell out inevitable scandal, something Anthony cannot afford.

Anthony's life has been plagued by controversy and scandal. He was originally the second son, and never meant to inherit the title.  However, after Anthony's brother died while sinking a stolen barge, accompanied by a young sex worker, after a very public drunken escapade, his father had no choice but to accept him as the new heir. Anthony's brother was known for his utterly unhinged and scandalous behaviour, he rebelled against all of their father's constraints and delighted in causing outrageous scenes and bringing negative attention to the family.  The children's mother was from Greece, extremely beautiful and extroverted, and exuberant. While Anthony was still a teenager, his father claimed their mother had grown promiscuous and hysterical and had her committed to an insane asylum, where she fell into a depression and committed suicide. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Anthony ended up in fistfights defending his mother's honour. Additionally, while Anthony was stationed in India as a soldier, his younger sister Effie ran away with a circus performer and was promptly disowned by their father as a result. Now no one has heard from her in years.

All of these things mean that when the former duke died, he made sure to write several very unusual provisions into his will. While Anthony inherited the dukedom of Weston immediately after his father's death, all of the money and property associated with the title were tied up in a complicated trust, meant to control and curtail Anthony's behaviour. Unless Anthony lives a life of sobriety and moderation, avoiding even the merest hint of a scandal until his thirtieth birthday, he will not gain control of his money and estates and remain under the thumb of his father's friend and advisor, Mr Yardley, who seems more than happy to continue his guardianship. The nude painting and accusations of adultery would certainly count as scandalous and ruin any chances Anthony has of escaping his tyrannical father's control from beyond the grave. 

Anthony goes to the Royal Academy to track down the mysterious L. Coover and is surprised to find that the painter is a young lady. He's not sure how she could possibly have seen him naked, and therefore mistakenly thinks she moonlights as a prostitute when not taking painting classes. Lucy instead reveals that she found him dead drunk in an alley and promises that the painting he saw was the only one she ever made of him. Anthony demands that she give him all her notes and sketches, or he'll get her thrown out of the Academy. It seems as if the two might never have to meet again after that, only Lucy discovers that the area of Shoreditch where she and her seamstress aunt live is scheduled to be demolished shortly, and the only powerful man she knows is Anthony. She shows up at his London townhouse and demands that he use whatever influence he has to try to persuade the city officials in charge of the decision to change their minds. In return, Anthony asks her to search for his missing sister, Effie, who he's very worried about.

Of course, now that they're seeing each other regularly, there's bound to be an attraction between them. However, Lucy discovers that to rebel against his father's strict rules, Anthony takes every chance he gets to get drunk in secret, hiding it from his servants and Yardley. Lucy's father was an alcoholic and she remembers all too well how devastating his drunkenness was for her and her mother. She's never going to let herself fall for an alcoholic. There's also the fact that she's an orphan from Shoreditch, while he's the duke of Weston. A happy ending for them isn't exactly in the cards.

There is a lot to like about this book, but also quite a few things that took me out of the story. As I've seen pointed out in a lot of reviews, the provisions left in Anthony's father's will, where he wouldn't be able to touch any of the money from his inheritance or estates until he turned thirty, or even beyond if he was involved in any scandals, just isn't something that could ever have happened and the complications around this plot strand just keep getting more and more ridiculous as the story progresses. Obviously, ridiculous will demands are frequently a trope in historical romance, but this one takes things a bit too far. 

As the daughter of an alcoholic myself (my father stopped drinking when I was nine, and hasn't drunk a drop since, so it could have been a lot worse for me growing up) I have a really hard time sympathising with characters with severe substance abuse problems that they refuse to deal with. I found the A Star is Born remake with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper almost insufferable to watch because I could not for a second emphasise with Cooper's character, and Lady Gaga's character should have gotten far far away from him as soon as she could. Similarly here, I found Anthony's habitual drinking, seemingly a direct result of him trying to spite his already dead father, rather immature and not at all an attractive character trait in what was supposed to be a romance hero. I'm sure it was meant to make him more tragic, but this misfired for me.

The novel also takes a turn for the rather melodramatic in the final third or so of the novel. Lucy does in fact manage to track down Effie, Anthony's missing sister, eventually but the details of her whereabouts for the past several years and who put her there and why, as well as the motivations of the villain of the piece just made me roll my eyes. 

Lowell has a really good turn of phrase, and I liked her more unusual choice of heroine (and several of Lucy's friends at the Academy), but I doubt I will be re-visiting this book in the future, and I feel no particular need to read the next book in the series. 

Judging a book by its cover: The delicate flowers on the cover and the whimsical silhouettes, make this look like a much more frothy and light-hearted novel than it actually is. There's a lot of dark subject matter being discussed in this novel, and this cover might mislead a reader into thinking they're going to get an undemanding romp, rather than a hero with PTSD, substance abuse problems, and a truly sordid family history. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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