I was inspired by last year’s reviews of What I Did for a Duke by Emmalita and Malin to move this one up my to read list. I’m still struggling in 2021 with finding my ability to sink into books and last year I was able to most easily focus on Romance novels, so I was comfortable betting the same would be true now. It had been quite awhile since I was actively seeking time to dive back into a book, and What I Did for a Duke did that for me this week (to the point where I was annoyed when my phone rang and was cranky with the person on the other end of the line. I should have just ignored the call).
Let’s get the important business out of the way first. This is a fantastic book, period. Separate from its genre, separate from its time of publication (a decade ago next month), separate from its place within a larger series – this novel fires on all cylinders at all times. The writing is beautiful, the characters have depth and nuance, the plot isn’t afraid to go against your expectations while still getting you to a believable and earned resolution – this is the stuff of the best of fiction writing. It also is a stunningly good Romance novel for those reasons and its ability to play around in its genre sandbox but not be limited by it.
What we find in What I Did for a Duke is the story of two people coming to terms with the public versions of themselves while finding the places that those personae line up with their interior lives, and then finding (and deciding they’ve found) the match for who they really are, beneath the artifice.
The book opens not with our main couple but instead Ian Eversea who is engaging in a tryst with the fiancée of the Duke of Falconbridge. It is a neat bit of writing by Long to have this section be told from Ian’s point of view as it serves as an introduction to the pieces of the puzzle to come. When the assignation is discovered by the Duke, Alex Moncrieffe, he vows the punishment will fit the crime and then he quickly and quietly ends his engagement. The punishment Alex intends is that he will ruin Ian’s younger sister Genevieve. The entire time through this early section we the reader are in understanding of the motivations, if not on the side of the Duke, and what remains to be seen is how Long will plot her way through.
We meet Genevieve at the beginning of a house party and her parent’s home, where she is getting her heart thoroughly broken by the man she loves, Harry, as he tells her he plans to propose to their friend Millicent. From that point the story runs in parallel fashion until the two parts collide: Alex is determined to seduce Genevieve; Genevieve is trying to figure out how to survive the end of her personal world as it has been upended by Harry’s imminent engagement. Everyone, save Millicent who is largely unaware of the dramatics surrounding her, is on edge – Ian on hypervigilant watch for whatever the Duke has planned; Harry seems to be putting off proposing and is visibly upset about the attention Alex is paying to Genevieve. There is disquiet amongst Genevieve’s parents, her sister remains in many ways withdrawn from the world save her causes, and neither Genevieve nor Alex is sleeping well.
Relatively quickly, the revenge plot is let go as Alex sees Genevieve for who she truly is and refuses to harm her in order to harm her brother. Alex sees in her what everyone else has missed, which is quietly infuriating Genevieve as no one who is the closest to her notices her heartbreak, but Alex does. She is the quiet Eversea, but Alex sees and brings out, her passion, her wit, and her kindness, and discovers in the younger woman a match for himself he didn’t expect.
What Long does so well here is tell a story of owning emotions. Each character must make a choice, or several choices, and the consequences of those emotional choices are what push the plot forwards. There are misunderstandings and moments of beautiful honesty. We see characters chafe under expectations and decide to act out, if only for themselves. Some characters are incredibly good at paying attention to the world around them, and others are oblivious to much of it. But everyone believes they have a firm idea of what is right, what is needed, and everyone comes out the end in a different place than they expected to, and the reader gets to go along for the ride.