Saturday, January 4, 2014

ARC Review: Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare

Click here to pre-order the book on Amazon (Release date: January 28, 2014)
Click here to pre-order the paperback from The Book Depository

What's in a name? When one is named Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, one is expected to live up to her literary namesakes and be tragically beautiful. Alas for poor Izzy, who has the tragic life but not the beauty. What happens, then, when your father names a much-beloved fictional character after you? One is expected to be that character and to live and breathe that character's life. All her life, Izzy Goodnight had to contend with two personalities: the real Izzy (motherless, plain-looking, and poor) and the storybook Izzy (wide-eyed, adventurous, and loved). It's a strange blend of fantasy and reality, but, as a young girl, Izzy had fixed her belief that her story would end happily.

The first chapter of the book is a heartbreaking account of Izzy's growing disillusionment culminating with her father's death and with losing everything her family owns.

One by one, she'd let go of all those girlish dreams.

Then last year, Papa had died, and all the stories dried up completely. The money was gone soon after that. For the first time in her life, Izzy verged on true desperation.

Her cravings for romance were gone. Now she'd settle for bread. What fairy tales were left over for a plain, impoverished, twenty-six-year-old woman who'd never ever been kissed?
- loc 70

Then she is bequeathed a castle and we think, maybe there is still hope for Izzy Goodnight and her dreams, but Gostley Castle is not a shining castle from fairy tales, it is crumbling, bat-infested and very cold. Then there is a discovery that her ownership of the castle comes with some complication from the former owner, who insists that he would never have sold the castle. I am reminded of this quote by Ken Dornstein: "Real life is never so neat as the stories we choose to tell about it" but Izzy is determined to make the best of her new situation. If life cannot give her the ending she dreams of, she will go and make it herself.

I thought Tessa Dare nailed character creation. Izzy is endearingly kind and optimistic and Ransom, while gruff and grumpy, has his own charms as well. I kept thinking, why did the author deliberately make Ransom blind? Wouldn't it have been a stronger message if a duke, possessing of his full faculties, fell in love with Izzy, despite her appearance? But I realised that his blindness was not for Izzy's sake but for his own. Ransom is not without his own share of baggage: from the death of his mother at childbirth, to his own sad, solitary childhood and then his dissipated adulthood -- the accident that caused his blindness was preceded by events that, had they happened, would have led Ransom down a path of further hopelessness. His seven months sojourn at Gostley has allowed Ransom to gradually take stock of his life. (But even greater realisations will come much later for him.)

There is a porousness between fiction and reality within Izzy: she easily (and readily) assumes the appropriate personality as the situation requires. Ransom, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in reality and is a constant reminder to Izzy of who she is outside of her father's stories.

"What the devil was that?" the duke asked.

"What do you mean?"

"You. Your behavior, the moment Miss Pelham arrived. It was like you became an entirely different person." He mimicked her girlish lilt. 'Oh, yes, Miss Pelham.' 'I'd be so grateful, Miss Pelham.'"

She sighed. "There's no need for you to be concerned about it."

"I'm not concerned. I'm envious. Why does she get the compliant Miss Goodnight, and I get the weasel-wielding harridan?"

"Because she's a Moranglian."

"A what?"

"A Moranglian. My father's stories took place in a fictional country called Moranglia. His most devoted admirers call themselves Moranglians. They have clubs and gatherings and circular letters. And they expect a certain wide-eyed innocence from Izzy Goodnight. I don't want to disappoint them, that's all."

He tapped his fingers on the back of a chair. "So. If I read these stories of your father's, does that mean you'll be meek and docile with me?"

- loc 1437 to 1452

One would think Izzy would resent the invasion of such harsh reality into her world -- but Izzy actually welcomes it. In truth, the burden of sustaining two worlds have weighed heavily on Izzy and she loves that can be herself -- only herself -- with Ransom. (Read Chapter 15)

There are several conflicts in the story:
(Ransom vs. the world) The castle's ownership: how could it have been sold without Ransom's approval? What happens to Izzy's claims?
(Ransom vs. himself) Ransom childhood was unhappy and then there is his blindness, which he doesn't he talk about. Why not?
(Izzy vs. herself) It is obvious that fictional Izzy is physically different from real Izzy. Izzy knows she isn't beautiful and she thinks it is something she should hide from Ransom.

It seems like a lot of loose ends to sort out and tie together but, when I was reading through the novel, it didn't feel confused or overwhelming or complicated. The idea of a "single effect" applies to the short story but, in a sense, Tessa Dare was able to utilize the same principle: from the very beginning, her focus was clear and one can visually map out how her beautiful words and stunning ideas build up towards its most dramatic resolution and ending.

There is a story (The Goodnight Tales) within a story (Izzy tells Ransom the story of how The Goodnight Tales were written) within a story (Izzy and Ransom's love story) in Romancing the Duke and Tessa Dare does a masterful job of synthesising all these stories. One can read this as purely a "Beauty and the Beast" love story and be spellbound by how clever, straightforward Izzy Goodnight chips away at Ransom's armour and finds a man worthy of love and of how that love transforms Ransom.

But I also enjoyed reading this as a reflection on fantasy and reality and I thought this novel was a very thoughtful contribution to the continuing dialogue about the romance genre. Intelligent, thoughtful, and packed with passion, this is another winner from Tessa Dare.

Romancing the Duke is the first book in Tessa Dare's Castles Ever After series. It will be released on January 28, 2014. To find out more about Tessa Dare, click below:

Disclosure: I received this review copy via Edelweiss. Thank you to Tessa Dare and Avon for the opportunity! Yes, this is an honest review.


  1. Oh I'm so jealous!! This sounds so fantastic! Great review and I can't wait to read it for sure.

  2. Hi, Ki!

    Thank you! I was really lucky that Avon approved my request for this book! It's so, so good! January 28 is a few weeks away! ;-)

  3. Isolde Ophelia. I actually considered both of those names for my daughter but my husband didn't like either one and someone thought that I made up the name Ophelia. I haven't read many reviews on this book so I'm very happy you had a chance to read this book and review it. I'll be sure to get myself a copy too!

  4. I just today finished reading an ARC of this novel and was fascinated the whole time. Trying to express my feelings about the novel will never flow as yours have done, but I shall give it a try. The sweetness, the tugging of the heartstrings and the laugh out loud qualities of this novel are top notch. Well done, Tessa!

  5. Hi, Connie! It actually took me a while to figure this review out. Bottom line is that I really loved this book and highly recommend it. ^_^

    Looking forward to your review!

    Hi, Alyn! I love the name Ophelia as well! It's a wonderful book -- enjoy!

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