My rating: Beach vacation, with a fancy drink (3.5/5)
I’ve been fairly taken with World War I novels for the past while, thanks to an introduction to the post-war years via Simone St. James. With this year’s centenary, it’s been remarkably easy to get your hands on anything WWI related. I’ve been particularly drawn to the aftermath of the war and the inevitable coping strategies that the survivors use to help themselves deal with the changed world around them. Because of this interest I was especially interested in reading An American Duchess as it takes place shortly after the end of the war in 1922, at a country estate no less. Downton Abbey anyone?
Zoe Gifford is an American heiress who has arrived in England to marry Sebastian, the second son of a duke, in order to gain access to her trust fund. Zoe’s fiance has died, so she’s not interested in love and plans to divorce Sebastian not long after the wedding. She simply needs access to her funds, and this is her only option. Sebastian has his own reasons for a marriage of convenience, but when Sebastian’s elder brother, Nigel, disapproves Zoe starts to rethink her plan. Not because she’s offended that the stuffy duke doesn’t think too much of her or her mercenary plan. No, it seems that Zoe starts to develop feelings for the duke once she starts to learn there’s more to his rigid behaviour. Nigel has returned from the war scarred in body and mind. He’s last friends, his fiance, his looks, and it also seems that he’s losing his way of life. His coping mechanism is clinging to routine and maintaining the status quo: “He believed in formality. He believed in the old ways, the old standards, in showing respect to one’s class and position” (p. 23). When Zoe arrives with her brash American mannerisms and her zest for life, Nigel is immediately off put, but soon finds himself reluctantly charmed and slowly forced out of his old fashioned nonsense. However, the scars from the war run deep and Nigel and Zoe’s fledgling relationship is continually challenged by their reluctance to acknowledge the past.
For the most part I thought An American Duchess was a good read. I was interested in the subject matter and the time period, and the romance started out so strong. The opposites attract theme here worked so well. Unfortunately, I thought the second half of this novel lagged and my interest started to wane.
What I thought the author did well was capturing the changing attitudes and beliefs in the post-war era, as well as the naive optimism that filled many of the survivors, mainly because it was another way for people to cope with what they had lost.
One the one hand the post-war era was a time for change. Women were moving in a new direction and gaining more independence. The class system was starting to break down, necessitating a push-back from those that did not want to let go of the old standards. No one encapsulates the idea that the modern world in encroaching on the old than Zoe and the ideals that she represents with her “outrageous” behaviour:
A devastating war had killed millions, had recarved Europe, had torn wounds that might scar over but would never heal. And what shocked Englishmen was a woman in the smoking room in a short skirt with her legs crossed (p. 76).
Throughout the novel, the author continues to demonstrate the tension between the old and the new order, capturing the attitudes of the time through the developments in Nigel and Zoe’s relationship. Both adhere to different ideals and because of that they continue to clash. Whether or not Nigel and Zoe’s differences can actually be resolved is another matter.
I also liked how Zoe represented that sense of urgency and optimism that is always taught to be part of the roaring twenties. Zoe is continually presented as a young woman that views fun as a primary objective; at first glance, Zoe appears extremely frivolous. She wants to keep moving, dancing, driving, flying. While this can be seen as optimism, with Zoe, it is shown to be her form of coping with the loss of her brother and fiance. If she stands still long enough, Zoe will have to think about that loss. I liked that the author showed that the characterized optimism of the time is more complicated than it appears. There was a reason people were running to the speakeasies and partying every night.
What I was not as fond of was the pacing of the romance. I did like that the author took a unique approach to the romance. Zoe and Nigel were married and declared their feelings for each other relatively quickly in the novel. This gave the author time to explore the inevitable conflict in their early marriage. The marked differences between Nigel and Zoe were not anywhere close to resolved before they decided to marry. Nigel was not ready to deal with his past or share it with Zoe, and Zoe was filled with the optimistic thought that she could “make” Nigel happy enough that he would forget the war and move on. Just hearing their thoughts on their wedding day, it was clear that there was going to be problems in the near future. While I honestly appreciated this approach, I found that the development of their relationship after marriage started to run in circles without moving forward.
Following their marriage, Nigel and Zoe continued to argue about the same things and it began to feel a bit repetitive. Nigel was determined to cling to his notions of class and propriety, and although I will say that he made huge leaps, he did not understand Zoe’s need for fun. And Zoe continued to run from the past and she was determined to bring Nigel with her without understanding how deeply the war had affected Nigel. This continued misunderstanding of each other repeated itself numerous times in the second half of the book and the continued clash started to feel redundant and unnecessary.
It was also in the second half of the book that I started to become frustrated with Zoe’s thinking and attitude. Yes, she was a modern girl, and I liked her independence, but she seemed very unwilling to compromise with Nigel despite knowing his beliefs. Nigel was raised to be a stuffy duke and there’s only so much change that can be expected and I thought that Zoe was expecting him to change into a new person in order for him to really win her love. I’m not opposed to some groveling when it’s deserved, and Nigel definetly needed to make some hard choices, but I thought that the personality transplant was a bit extreme and unfair. Both Nigel and Zoe demonstrated some very muddled thinking and seemed to disregard the fact that they were married, and therefore had to actually consider the other person in the relationship. Again, this was a great idea and it was refreshing to see the hero and heroine actually have to deal with reality in a romance, I just felt that it was somewhat one-sided after all the repetitive arguments that showed how different these two were.
What An American Duchess succeeds in doing is capturing a moment in history. Readers are treated to the changing beliefs following a destructive war. Not everyone was happy with these changes and this was most clear in the relationship between Nigel and Zoe, each representing diverging schools of thought. While I did like the premise and the historical atmosphere I found the continued problems between Nigel and Zoe in the second half to be repetitive, which disrupted the pacing of the book for me. Ultimately, I think this book could have been significantly shorter and had a stronger finish. That said, I loved the atmosphere and I would be back for another book by this author in the same setting. Perhaps Nigel’s sister’s story?
*Review copy via NetGalley.
Somewhere in France takes place directly during the war; however, it tackles many of the same issues that come up in An American Duchess, namely the changing notions of class and the status of women. Somewhere in France is more action packed and contemplative, but the romance is very sweet and endearing, and readers are treated to an interesting perspective of the war with the main characters being an ambulance driver and doctor.
To date, all of Simone St. James‘ novels have tackled the between-wars era. While more supernatural in content, each book explores the huge impact that the war had on those that survived. Silence for the Dead is likely to be a good choice if you’d like to learn more about shell shock and the “treatment” options that were available for men who returned home damaged.
Lastly, for a more serious, and much less romantic take on the aftermath of WWI, try Anna Hope’s Wake. While the true impact of the war is somewhat tempered in An American Duchess due to it’s genre, that is not the case in Wake. What’s also interesting is that Wake is told exclusively through three women that were effected by the war.
For more WWI reads, see my Great War Reading List.