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The Day of the Duchess by Sarah MacLean


I knew this book was going to be heavier than most historical romances going into it, and it certainly delivered on that promise. When you know from an earlier book in the series that the hero of this book is caught cheating on the heroine - entirely on purpose, to hurt her - that’s quite a premise to start their story. And wow, Sarah MacLean can really write: despite the tough story line, like all of her books, this one just sucks you in. I couldn’t put it down - but I find that with all her books, even when I’m at odds with the characters or even the plot. For this one, I have a lot to say about it.

This review will be entirely spoilers from here, so stop reading now if you haven’t read the book and wouldn’t like to know all the details just yet!

I liked the book, and I’m fine with the overall plot trajectory, but I have some points that…I’m working through in my head, let’s say. (All The Feelings.) First, a huge part of the story is the fact that the hero, Mal, cheated. That’s very unlike romance novels: I’ve heard many romance readers say that cheating is a dealbreaker, so I’m guessing this book is not universally beloved. That he cheated to punish Sera, the heroine, for not telling him that she’s pregnant, after he specifically told her to not engage with him in any way, feels out of balance. Oh, he regrets and repents. But I was expecting him to have done that horrible thing because he caught her in a compromising position or something like that, not basically being angry reaping what he sowed and then taking it out on her. It felt so shockingly immature, even to the back drop of him angry at being set up to marry her. Even though he always wanted to marry Sera…

…which brings me to the point that the back story of how Mal's parents’ marriage was a train wreck should have been pushed to the forefront even more, probably with a prologue that showed a scene from that time. It played heavily into why he reacted so strongly at being set up, and why he couldn’t see past his anger and remember that he wanted to marry her all along.

He travels everywhere to find her, finds her in Boston and seems to know it, but Caleb won’t let him see her and she doesn’t know until way later that he was there. Why aren’t they collectively more annoyed with Caleb for playing it like that? I’m surprised that Sera's sisters wouldn’t make a huge deal of this (not sure they know about it, as the story is written, which I’m not sure I prefer). Mal has been searching for her everywhere, and then he just turns tail and runs, and that feels weird. I get that Caleb is protecting her, but it still feels heavy-handed on his part. It’s not like traveling across the ocean is easy in the 1800s, and if all he wants is to be with her…why leave? They’re both grieving the loss of their baby girl, it seems odd that he wouldn’t fight harder to be together at that point.

Further on in the story, I don’t understand why she never explains to him what she found in her freedom, and that she wants the tavern. He finds out accidentally instead. I mean, their communication is dreadful, that’s obviously key to the whole story here, but this seems like something she should have tried to bring up. And why she did she run again?! It seems like, instead of telling him to marry Felicity, she should have explained her predicament and maybe they could have worked together to take on Parliament to find a solution.

Finally, the fact that he gives her a divorce, and in such a grand-gesture way, is obviously important: he gets that she needs to make her own decision. But that he tells her to go off and be happy with whomever she can trust, that he lets her go, feels so hurtful. I wish there was a way to orchestrate his understanding without him having to let her go, because the romantic story line always feels so much stronger when he simply cannot let her go no matter what. I wanted him to tell her that he wished to give her freedom but could not be without her, though I know that’s not a possible balance to get the message across that he understands her. They get remarried (which feels a bit unreal? Like, would they allow that after all the fuss over the divorce? But anyway, I suspend my disbelief), and they get their big wedding and presumably the wedding night, so it’s okay in the end. But still, gah. It hurts.

But that’s the underlying point of this story, isn’t it: they hurt each other, and other people didn’t help (see: her scheming mother, then his scheming mother). They have to face the hurt and the losses and decide how to move forward. In the end, it’s a beautiful story about deeply flawed and grieving people navigating incredibly difficult situations. And it is heartbreaking and painful. I take solace in their warm presence in Bombshell (the next in the series), in which they are both on much more solid ground, together.

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