Difficult Dukes, Book #2
Review of Difficult Dukes, Book 1
Heat Factor: It’s your medium-low-level histrom sexytimes, and it works well in context
Character Chemistry: The way these two processed their relationship – separately and together – was awesomesauce
Plot: Ten Things I Hate About You but more grown up
Overall: I waited a loooooooooooong time for this book, and it was better than I’d hoped for
This might turn out to be more like a book report than a review, but considering that Loretta Chase is something of a histrom legend, I don’t think she particularly needs my help to sell books, so I’m not gonna get too cut up about it.
In case the title of the book didn’t clue you in (maybe you are much younger than me?), this is a spin on the classic movie Ten Things I Hate About You, which of course is a spin on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. So we’ve got it all: The “shrew”, her sweet younger sister, the distressed father, the nice young man, and the only man who sees the shrew (this being a Ten Things I Hate About You interpretation – Shakespeare’s original relationship being hugely problematic).
That said, Chase’s take is really nice, and not just because Cassandra and Ashmont are older than Young Adult/New Adult. As I read, I was constantly thinking that I really like what Chase is doing with this series of Dukes. If you haven’t already read the first book in this series, I’d encourage you to pop over to my review, because you can see that in this series Chase is playing with a lot of ideas about historical social politics and our interpretation of them as modern readers.
There are two big problems that need to be addressed for this relationship to work:
- Cassandra fell in love with Ashmont when they were both children, and he never noticed her when they became adults.
- Ashmont spent his whole adulthood being the most selfish, privileged man in the world, making Cassandra believe (for years) that she’d misplaced her faith in her childhood white knight.
So Ashmont has to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of character growth in this book, which I initially struggled with, but ultimately had to acknowledge was right, and Chase makes the effort to get the reader to that point, too.
You see, Cassandra is not like other girls. I put this up front for the “Ugh, not like other girls!” crowd, because – yes, I agree with you. But also, Ashmont doesn’t characterize her this way, she characterizes herself this way, and if the reader makes the smallest effort, it’s easy to understand why from a social standpoint. Cassandra is an activist, but she’s not the sort of activist who’s going to convince people to join her cause by being conciliating and persuasive. She’s combative and lets her personality hang out without apology, so she’s the activist who’s going to get people’s attention and hopefully make them uncomfortable enough to think about issues, but she’s not going to get much love for doing so. When we are dealing with social pressures – pressures that frankly still exist – to be conciliating with others and patient with the status quo, it’s easy to understand why Cassandra doesn’t see herself represented in the greater world. Bonus points to Chase for not just making her a modern feminist in skirts, too.
Cassandra typically enters into situations with basic consideration for propriety. Because she’s a feminist, but she also understands that she lives in the world she lives in and just because she wants things to be different doesn’t mean she can make them that way. It’s just that when things unexpectedly go sideways for her, she ends up in situations that are unfairly problematic to her reputation. It’s one of these situations that finally makes Ashmont finally see her, but it’s also that situation that puts her in the position of possibly needing to marry Ashmont when she does not respect or trust him after all of his bad behavior.
So let’s talk about Ashmont. The book begins on the heels of Ashmont’s duel with his best friend who “stole” Ashmont’s fiancee on the morning of their wedding. You don’t have to read book 1 to read book 2, but I might argue that doing so makes Ashmont more fully 3-dimensional early on.
I really liked Ashmont’s characterization because he’s the epitome of privilege. He’s young, he’s got oodles of money, he’s a duke. Why on earth would he be motivated to concern himself with things that don’t impact his extraordinarily privileged life? He’s spent his adulthood doing whatever he wants, but he’s not the rakish asshole kind of histrom hero. He’s also not the starchy kind. He’s just a guy with immense privilege doing what he wants: playing pranks on people because he finds it entertaining, getting drunk, having sex, fighting, and wash, rinse, repeat. In fact, he reads something like Freddy, from Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion, except that Freddy is a starchy twit while Ashmont is a self-indulgent one.
Ashmont’s similarities to Freddy are greatest when we consider that he has been constantly underestimated for all of his adulthood. In part this is due to his own behavior and personality. But in fact, there were several instances in the first 40% of this book that I thought that Cassandra was unnecessarily unkind to Ashmont. She publicly mocks him a couple of times (as does one of his best friends…this is a behavior I really don’t like to read), and she also leaves him hanging off a railing. Yes, she pushed him because he tried to prevent her from leaving their conversation by grabbing her arm, but also he could have really actually died falling to the cobblestones from a first floor balcony, and she walks off, leaving him hanging by his knees over the edge. He goes on to lament his bad behavior and foolishness, putting his hands on her when he shouldn’t have, which is true and begins his growth arc, but also…manslaughter is not cute.
There’s no malice in Ashmont at all, he’s just extremely self-absorbed and uncaring of how his actions might impact others. Which comes back to bite him when what he really wants is for Cassandra to marry him. Because he likes her. Chase doesn’t really get into this in Ten Things I Hate About the Duke, but the reason Ashmont wooed the fiancee who jilted him in book 1 is because she was nice to him and nobody’s ever just nice to him. Ergo, both protagonists have the same issue, but from different viewpoints. Ashmont is looking for someone who sees him, who chooses him, and who he can count on because he’s kind of emotionally dumped on and written off, including by the people who care about him. For her part Cassandra is worried that Ashmont isn’t sincere when she’s asking the questions “Do you see me? Do you choose me? and Can I count on you?” And based on everything she knows about him, that’s a totally reasonable worry.
At first I wanted Cassandra to realize that her meanness directed at Ashmont, which was based on information she had obtained from secondary sources, wasn’t necessarily that different from the way that people were unkind to or judgemental of her without knowing her. But Chase didn’t go there. Which turned out to be okay because she did some other cool stuff with the narrative. So what really worked for me in the Ashmont/Cassandra dynamic was Cassandra’s realization that she wanted to believe that Ashmont really did see her and appreciate her, but she logically couldn’t rely on days-old information when looking at it in the context of years of his behavior.
But Ashmont didn’t dwell on that (not that he really understood it at first). It all began when they had a self-defense demonstration at Cassandra’s club and Ashmont fought her. She told him to come at her like a ruffian, so he did, and he wasn’t trying to play her or prove anything to her, he was playing with her. He went into it just like he would have with his friends, and he had a great time. And so did she.
We’d had inklings before, but that interaction and what immediately follows it really begins Ashmont’s journey of self-examination. He realizes that he needs to examine his suppositions and his privilege and to really, honestly hear and see Cassandra – not project his desires on her – if he wants her to be with him. Chase makes Ashmont’s progress easier for the reader to see by including another man who has an interaction with Cassandra early on and becomes infatuated with her, but constantly seeks to change or reform her as he tries to woo her. (And Cassandra is great, because she’s all, “Dude, I have less than no interest in you mansplaining to me.”)
A final thought re: Ashmont. I already mentioned that he’s not your typical “rakish asshole” or “starchy prig” hero. He’s a bit of a buffoon. And I think one thing that this characterization does in his favor is that it allows him to examine everything that’s happening not in terms of tragic events of his past that shaped him, but instead in terms of what’s happening right now and what his choices mean in that context. He knows he has to protect Cassandra’s reputation for social reasons, but everything he decides to do is because he wants a future with Cassandra and he wants to be the man who can actually have that future.
I did worry what would happen if he “relapsed” or if he weren’t morally upright enough for Cassandra on a consistent basis, considering that Ashmont went from not concerning himself with anything at all to getting all kinds of progressively political. But I think it worked because Cassandra did seem to meet him where he was when it came to the point of her deciding what to do with her own future.
So anyway, this was a good read.
I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.
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