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Bringing Down the Duke: A Masterclass in Romance

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Audrey's Corner I confess, I'm not much one for romance novels. My few early introductions into the genre were bodice rippers featuring Fabio's bulging pectoral muscles and a woman swooning beneath a bold-face title. Needless to say, I ended up squarely in the science fiction and fantasy genre, where at the very least the covers were more discrete.

However, in the age of Kindle and cheerful cartoon cover designs, I decided to take another gander at what's going on in Romancelandia and check out Evie Dunmore's debut bestseller, Bringing Down the Duke. I am pleased to report that, while there was some bodice-ripping-adjacent shenanigans going on, I found this novel to be both highly enjoyable and highly educational from a craft perspective.

The crux of any romance novel is, of course, the characters. Everything in the story hinges around the chemistry between the two love interests. Dress it up in whatever sub-genre flair you want, proper romance must get those to lovebirds right. And this story does exactly that. The protagonist of the story is the sassy and bold suffragette Annabelle, whose situation is dire as she struggles to make ends meet and make her mark as one of Oxford's very first female students. Her love interest is the serious, duty-driven Sebastian, Duke of Montgomery. I was impressed by how much Dunmore nailed the opposites-attract, enemies-to-lovers story arc, where the two protagonists were perfectly situated to both hate and also challenge/fascinate each other. They start off the story on opposite sides of the suffragette movement, not to mention polar different ends of the class spectrum, which creates tension right off the bat. Right away, there is tons of story conflict to mine, especially when the characters are forced together because of deftly plotted circumstance. Dunmore, of course, doesn't leave it at that. She also adds in the tension of Annabelle's situation, desperate for money and tied into a movement that could put her whole education at risk, along with some great backstory about the Duke's family troubles, strained sibling relationship, and mysterious tragic backstory.

Of course, Annabelle and Sebastian quickly fall in love, circling one another like planets aligning. And this is where Dunmore's debut novel really knocks it out of the park [SPOILER ALERT]. One of the issues with Romance is how to keep characters apart when they're clearly destined to be together, which leads to a lot of contrived twists and eye-rolling miscommunications. See, you have to fill a whole novel with story—which means the two love interests can't just fall in love and be happy—while simultaneously not making either of them dumb, cruel, or otherwise unlikable. This novel expertly wields history for plot purposes, using the fact that a Duke couldn't marry a commoner without a scandal that would cost Montgomery the family castle he's been working to get back from the Queen. It's his life's work and ambition to reacquire what his gambling father lost, and openly tying himself to Annabelle would mean sacrificing that dream. And while there is the option that Annabelle could be his mistress, her own specific personal history makes that option impossible (not to mention dis-empowering!).

Like all good romance novels, this one has the mandatory HEA (Happily Ever After). It also has some really excellent discussions about women's rights, various schools of philosophy, and classism. As I've mentioned before, those details elevate an already good story to bestseller status. But the real backbone of this book is the fun roller coaster drama of lovable, in-love characters navigating the interesting setting of 1879 England. Dunmore created two fully fleshed-out people who were destined to be together, and the story of how they get there is un-put-downable.

Are you a romance writer? If so, I recommend studying Bringing Down the Duke. It's fun, funny, clever, and a must-read for anyone trying their hand at the biggest book genre in the world. If you're anything like Evie Dunmore, then hats off, because good things are coming your way.

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