Zoe is a new money, New York heiress who has decided on a marriage of convenience in order to access her trust fund. Sebastian is an old world noble with a secret and a desperate financial need. Together they decide to wed and divorce so everyone gets what they want. Except Nigel, Sebastian’s brother and the prideful Duke of Langford, to whom Zoe and divorce represent a modern world with which he can’t cope.
Obviously, Zoe and Nigel fall in love and she becomes the duchess instead of just Lady Hazelton. Even if that wasn’t the title, it’s right there in the blurb. Still, this happens less than halfway through the book and isn’t the true focus of the story. Both characters lost practically everything in World War I. Zoe’s beloved father has passed, as has the love of her life, a flying Ace who taught her everything he knew, and her brother. Nigel is mentally and physically scarred from the fighting. His fiancee left him, his other brother died of influenza and his mother hasn’t recovered. Zoe copes with her grief through fast driving, high flying, and partying ‘til dawn. Nigel turns in on himself, freezing out his family and friends. Shockingly, as they face numerous personal tragedies in their short marriage, these grieving styles don’t work together.
Where the book is best is describing the horror of the war and its impact on civilian life. No one, not the laundress or the Duke, are untouched by loss. I found myself extremely sad for their futures, which finally seem bright, with WW2 on the horizon to take their children and nephews. It’s a point of view I’ve seen a lot of historical novels struggle to relate, which makes it all the more impressive in a so-called “pop fiction” genre.
Unfortunately, my biggest problems with the book are the pacing and Nigel’s reactions to Zoe; both are pretty big issues. The pacing is something of a rollercoaster, with plot points, (like an embezzling lawyer and a suicide,) flashing right past, while other, minor things climb for ages. I had a real issue specifically with the trip to California. The previous chapters are ignored for set pieces that didn’t have enough impact, (the beach and the party specifically,) but feel included to set a Gatsby like atmosphere to counter England. I felt like we either should have moved into that setting a lot sooner or had a tighter focus on the main characters and their relationship turning point.
Nigel came across as alternatively neglectful and overbearing. While Zoe obviously wanted him to fight for her, the artist and the pilot were both eyerolling. And selling all of a woman’s modes of transport while she’s ill? That’s just abusive, Nigel. On the other side of the coin, I understand his coping mechanisms required him to stay away, but the way he treated her after both miscarriages was abominable. Zoe’s not faultless, but I could never take Nigel’s side.
Now, I did like Nigel as a character, and I was rooting for them to make up and make the marriage work. I liked the idea of focusing on the after-the-wedding scenes that we don’t often see in romance novels. The passion was palpable, and the sorrow was heartbreaking. I do wish the pacing had been steadier and some of the rougher relationship patches felt like a slog as Nigel and Zoe rehashed the same arguments over and over. In all, a good read with a few caveats.