March 2008, European Historical Romance (1840s-1850s [Victorian] England)
Leisure, $6.99, 306 pages, Amazon ASIN 0843958707
There are two reviews of this book
After reading only three chapters of Distracting the Duchess by Emily Bryan, I decided I would have to submit the book’s heroine to the Mary Sue Litmus test once I had finished reading. Come on! The woman has raven hair, moss-green eyes and a voluptuous figure. She shares her home with two cats. Her father is an East India Company nabob, and she herself is the widow of the Duke of Southwicke. She is a renowned artist, was a sculptor child prodigy (one of her sculptures is in Queen Victoria’s private collection) and just happens to be named Artemisia, and in no way for famous Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, but for her maternal grandfather, Artie (I’m not kidding you). And to top it all, with the last sentence of the third chapter, it is revealed that Artemisia, under the alias Josiah Beddington, is also a financial wizard who has been in charge of her own fortune and her father’s for the last years. That’s quite a bit to achieve by the age of 25.
After having got over the shock of meeting Artemisia, I settled down to read what turned out to be a very amusing read, albeit a shallow and faulty one in several aspects. Artemisia, the widowed Duchess of Southwicke, spends her morning painting male models in the nude for her huge project – the whole Olympic pantheon. She expects an Eros, but when a completely unsuitable, but very attractive man walks in, she quickly has him posing as Mars. The model calls himself Thomas Doverspike, but his real name is Trevelyn Deveridge, and he uses this means of access to get at Artemisia’s father, nabob Angus Dalrymple, and through him at his shadowy financial advisor, Josiah Beddington. There is instant heat between Trev and Artemisia, and it is very funny to read how she reacts with as much off-handedness as she can to his erections. Although Thomas Doverspike proves more flirtatious and more disturbing than her other models, Artemisia asks him to return, and a relationship of sorts develops between the two. Passions fly high, but for some time there are constant interruptions when matters are about to become really intense – and my compliments here to Emily Bryan, because the interruptions are some of the most original I have come across recently.
There are little developed subplots about Artemisia’s stepson Felix, who is heavily indebted to some shady Russians who also want access to Mr Beddington, and about her social-climbing mother who tries to marry off her two younger daughters to members of the aristocracy. One possible matrimonial candidate is the Honorable Trevelyn Deveridge, son of the Earl of Warre. There is a political side to what Trev tries to achieve with Angus and Mr Beddington, and some breaking and entering ensues.
The problem with the book is that it’s terribly uneven. There is the humor, which is hilarious at times, and the fact that Emily Bryan takes more than one romance stock situation only to subvert it completely, again with hysterical results. The sex scenes are extremely well-written – steamy and funny.
On the down side, both hero and heroine start out more or less as an accumulation of plot necessities (Artemisia even more so than Trev – she must be a mature artist, a duchess, and a financial genius, all for plot’s sake), and it takes a while for them to achieve more depth. The secondary characters are extremely two-dimensional. Furthermore, Emily Bryan not only gets titles and forms of address of the British aristocracy wrong, but also the male aristocrats’ roles. Other errors are more practical; Artemisia, for instance, wears a dress with two petticoats, a crinoline and a corset, and goes climbing through windows and trapdoors in this very outfit – without ever getting stuck or stumbling over the skirts. On the other hand, certain elements of early Victorian technology and culture are included in the text, and the queen herself makes an short appearance, but in spite of this the novel feels wallpapery.
My overall impression of Distracting the Duchess is mixed at best. It might be for you if you like humorous romps, but you must be fairly tolerant of some historical inaccuracies and general wallpaperism. Emily Bryan is without doubt an author to watch, but I hope she will take more time to develop both the historical background and the secondary characters for her next novel. On another note, for your information, Artemisia scored 53 points on the Mary Sue Litmus test, and that with leaving open any questions that refer to Emily Bryan personally. So I hope Bryan will avoid cats and moss-green eyes in the future, too.
-- Rike Horstmann
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