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Lady Clara Fairfax has been part of the Dressmakers series since the first book, where she is jilted by the Duke in favor of Marcelline Noirot, even then, she made an unforgettable first impression, and I wondered when she would get her own happy ending.
I appreciate the length of time that Loretta Chase has given Clara to grow and mature -- our heroine is now a lady who has a keen (almost too keen) understanding of society and of the way the world works. She is devoted to her causes, and dearly loves the few friends she has kept through her "mis"adventures in the Dressmakers series. Clara is wary of the shallowness of society, but realizes that she must be part of it. But a greater part of herself is devoted to the Milliners' Society for the Education of Indigent Females, which the Noirot sisters run. When one of the children falls into a bad crowd, Clara is determined to save him -- and she enlists the help of an old acquaintance: Oliver Radford, a barrister.
Loretta Chase continues the theme of matching really incredible, intelligent, and strong heroines with irascible, yet charismatic heroes. Oliver is a difficult person to get close to -- he's all prickles and biting words, but Clara isn't intimidated by him. I love how she's able to stand up to Oliver, and even respond so cleverly to him. This is the novel's greatest strength: Loretta Chase is very, very good at flirtation through witty banter, and Oliver and Clara dance around their mutual attraction with each encounter. There were, admittedly, times when it got a bit much, and I found myself wishing that Oliver would change his tone (a little bit) when he talked to Clara, but he maintained that same exasperated, challenging, teasing tone with her.
Clara is, I think, the more complex and layered character of the two. She's a lady who has played Society's marriage game several times, and lost. She knows she is valued for her looks and title, and she longs to be more, to do more. She isn't naive, but she displays an innocent optimism and faith in the people around her, perhaps this is why she sees more to Oliver than I do.
Clara did not run screaming from the room. A lady didn't run screaming from anywhere unless her life was in immediate danger.
This was simply another marriage proposal.
Today was Lord Herringstone's turn. He said he loved her. They all said so with varying degrees of fervor. But being an intelligent girl who read more than she ought to, Clara was sure that he, like the others, merely wanted to claim the most fashionable girl in London for his own.
- loc 197 to 201
The author challenges our hero and heroine with a very gritty (and dangerous) obstacle: one of the children in the school that the Noirot sisters founded has been recruited by a known criminal -- not just any petty criminals, but one of the more deadly ones -- and he doesn't take too kindly on Oliver and Clara interfering with his operations. Because of his work, Oliver has had previous dealings with Jacob Freame. He knows the dangers and hazards of the area, which is why he is very reluctant to expose Clara to it.
Clara's exposure to the underworld does a good job of highlighting the social differences between her and Oliver, but what is amazing about Clara is that she isn't afraid to get her feet dirty. Clara is determined to save the child, and she doesn't really consider how the situation might affect her. It is partly reckless, but mostly brave -- other ladies would have heeded Oliver's warning and allowed him to handle everything, but Clara is tired of sitting and waiting. For her, now is the time for action.
Clara held up her hand, silencing him. If she didn't immediately seize control, they would. They'd treat her like a child, the way men usually treated women, especially young women. They'd murmur soothing things and send her on her way. They might even tattle to Papa's solicitor. She doubted any lawyerly rules of confidentiality applied to women.
Do not show uncertainty or anxiety, she commanded herself. For once in your life you can do something more productive than decline marriage offers.
- loc 442
The other obstacle is something more personal: while Oliver is related to a duke, he isn't in line to inherit the title, and Clara's family wants her to marry into the peerage. Oliver has lived with this sort of discrimination his entire life -- his cousin, Bernard, the current duke, made his life in school difficult. Oliver lives in a strange state of limbo: he's had to prove himself to his titled relatives, and, at the same time, to his fellow barristers. At this moment in his life, he is nicely settled and well-respected, and recognized for his own achievements, but, with Clara's entry into his life, it makes him realize that there might be something more for him to pursue. (In that, the title of the novel spoils this particular part of the plot. Because of the title, we know that Oliver will inherit the title -- all the struggle that he goes through to prove that he, by himself, is enough, is negated. Perhaps it was the author's idea of creating an ironic situation -- that Clara's parents objected because they did not know, and we did, but there's a part of me that wished he remained a barrister.)
There were moments when I felt Oliver was in danger of becoming a flat character -- he was consistently cantankerous, and I kept waiting to see a different side of him. It comes out, but not as often as I had thought was needed to prove that there was more to him than his gruffness. It is his default, yes, but I wanted to be surprised by him. I have to admit that, when the softer side of Oliver comes out, it's hard not to love him. There is a reluctant tenderness and openness to him that makes him quite adorable. (Though he would probably sue me for saying that.)
I guess the author also realized that she needed to soften Oliver's edges a bit, and so, gifted him with an incredibly interesting set of parents. His father married his stepmother when he was 50 years, and his stepmother was a divorcee, who was decades younger than George Radford. In the chapters where Oliver visits his father and stepmother, you could see warmth and tenderness in their dynamic. It's heartbreaking for Oliver to see his father, a barrister like himself, slowly decline. It's the elephant in the room in the Radford family -- and, is perhaps, one of the reasons why Oliver tries so valiantly to keep himself so together, because the alternative would be to completely fall apart.
While not my favorite in the series, Dukes Prefer Blondes is a great story and a wonderful addition to Chase's Dressmakers series.
Dukes Prefer Blondes is Book 4 in Loretta Chase's Dressmakers series. It was released last December 29, 2015. To find out more about Loretta Chase and her books, click below:
Disclosure: I received this ARC copy via Edelweiss. Thank you to Avon Books and Loretta Chase for the opportunity. Yes, this is an honest review.