Hi there! Welcome to a semi-regular feature here on Wonkomance, Historical Wonktasticals. Contemporary angst is all good and well, and I love a good modern romance as much as the next reader. But a barrel of wonk, set well before the characters even knew the psychobabble terms to define whatever the fuck was wrong with their addled brains? Oooooh yeah. Gimme some of that!
To kick things off, I can’t think of a better, stranger book to showcase than Eloisa James’ The Duke is Mine. From the first chapter of this fresh take on “The Princess and the Pea”, I was in wonko heaven, and the freak just kept on coming in the best possible ways.
The wonkiness starts with a zaftig heroine who actually is a zaftig heroine, not just unfashionably “curvy” where other girls are slender reeds, or a girl with an embarrassment of riches in the bosom region but a normal figure otherwise. Not, in other words, that chick on the cover of the book (although the cover is pretty awesomesauce). No, Olivia is a big plump girl all around, and also a girl who sucks big time at doing all the duchessy things she’s been trained for all her life. Mostly because she’s given to saying stuff like this (to her sister, about a possible rival named Althea, and another character named Cecily Bumtrinket):
“I think it sounds like some sort of odd digestive. Drink Althea for your bowels! Lady Cecily would love it. Do you suppose, Georgie, that her ladyship is perfectly unconscious of how odd it is for a woman with the surname Bumtrinket to be constantly talking about her digestion?”
I just can’t even. Later there’s this whole deal where she’s supposed to be impressing the Duke and his mother, and instead she and another guest at the house party sit around making up elaborately vulgar insults. Meanwhile, the hero is supposed to be wooing Olivia’s very duchessy sister Georgiana, but they end up having a conversation about the best way to study whether light is made up of rays or particles, and never get to the woo.
Hero wonk? Check! If Tarquin (or Quin, as he’s called) were a modern guy, he’d probably be flirting with an Asperger’s diagnosis…but he certainly wouldn’t be flirting with girls, because he hasn’t a clue. In his own words, he’s “not good at…interpreting complex statements.” This includes pretty much anything that involves feelings, as well as the dirty limericks that Olivia sometimes busts out with. Quin freely admits he’s baffled by normal human interaction; he rarely laughs or even smiles, and prefers to spend his time working on obscure mathematical theorems and other uber-nerdy pastimes. His first wife, Evangeline, cheated on him big-time, so this time around he’s agreed to let his mother pick him a new duchess. After all, his mother is a dowager duchess and the author of a well-known tract on etiquette. She should know what to look for, right? It just makes sense. Because he’s a bit like Spock.
Fooked-up families? Oh sweet jumping Jeebus on a pogo stick, yes. They mean well…but Olivia’s parents are so set on her becoming a duchess that they engage her to a ducal heir practically out of the cradle. And when that heir seems bent to go to war, they agree to an early formal betrothal and then some to secure the deal. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Caveat? Well, yes. Olivia’s intended, Rupert, is a bit of a special case. He suffered oxygen deprivation during birth, and as a result he isn’t all one might expect in a marquess and future duke. His wife will have to run the ducal estate one day, while she isn’t busy bearing an heir. His father tells Olivia (when she’s fifteen) that she has what he’s looking for in a daughter-in-law: brains and hips.
Rupert’s the kind of character I’ve never seen in a historical, and rarely in any novel. Ms. James does a masterful job of making him not only sympathetic, but even a hero in his own right by the book’s end. In chapter five there’s a scene between Rupert and Olivia that I can’t describe here (spoilers, kinda). But it is one of the most awful, painful, poignant, lovely things I’ve read in years, and by the end of it if you don’t admire Olivia you’re just not human, because the scene makes it clear she is one hell of a nice girl. Not Mary-Sue nice, not Cinderella nice. Just a decent human being. It is sort of a sex scene, but certainly not like a sex scene you’ve ever read in a romance. Ever.
As for the relationship between Quin and Olivia, here’s an interesting switch: they actually have one. And it is freaking adorable. They’re horny, sure, but they also genuinely like one another and you can see the friendship forming along with the romance. They talk openly (it’s the only way either of them knows how to be), acknowledging the difficulties they’re likely to face as a couple. From the middle of the book on, they’re already pretty deeply involved in nerdy lust and affection, and the rest of the plot really hinges on how they can arrange to be together given that she’s already betrothed to Rupert and he’s supposed to be marrying her sister. They’re working together on this problem, and it isn’t particularly angsty or melodramatic between them, except for the externals that they can’t control. But oh, the inherent wonk, with a hero who first declares his feelings thusly:
“I’m saying that I care about you. Embarrassingly, I seem to care about you more than I did Evangeline. It may be that I am mad.” He paused, considering. “I don’t perceive any other signs of mental weakness, though, so I am inclined to simply acknowledge this as a human weakness. I am reluctant to label it a failing.”
I love you too, Quin. I love you too.
P.S. Even the dog in this story is wonky. Adorable plot moppet? I think not. Little Lucy, Rupert’s dog, is a “very small, rather battered-looking dog” with a rat-like tail and flea-bitten ears. Rupert found her abandoned in an alley. She’s maybe not 100% housetrained. But she’s very sweet.
Next time on Historical Wonktasticals: Courtney Milan. I haven’t even decided which book yet, because she has so many wonktastic heros to choose from!