My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book was the first of Duran’s I really didn’t like the preview put out in advance. Unfortunately, it turns out the big issue in the preview (crazy unsexy power imbalance) wasn’t very much remedied in the rest of the book.
I have no fault with the heroine’s spine; she refuses to be intimidated by him, even when he often scares her with violent behavior (red flag!). What really got to me, though, was his narration, how he thought about her and their relationship. On the positive side, it was actually very IC for someone raised to be a duke, i.e. superior to 99% of the people he meets over his entire life. On the negative side, it did not make for a sexy relationship or one that the romance novel reader wants to root for.
This is what first pinged my “oh no bad news” radar, in the preview, as the “hero” (Alastair) broods over his unfaithful dead wife (whom he did not murder, she died of opium overdose):
He’d learned Margaret too easily, and never learned her at all. He would not make that mistake again. The next time, he would not leave the bed until he had mastered the woman in it. He would learn that trick, no matter how much study it took.
I stared at that paragraph for a while, wondering if maybe it meant “master” as you master an academic field…but, unfortunately, in light of everything else he thinks in the book, I can’t accept that. Also when you speak of “mastering” a person…it is never the same as mastering a field of study, sorry.
But this “hero” (I don’t usually use quotes around that to refer to the male protagonist of romance novels, but this dude is by far my least favorite of all of Duran’s male protagonists) is the brooding type (ugh how insufferable), the kind who fancies himself dark and soulless and either locks himself in his bedroom for MONTHS, refusing to see anyone, or else stalks about going OH WHAT A VILLAIN I AM. Spoiler: he does both.
(Disclaimer: the one time he actually did become a legitimate villain was in the preview for the last book, A Scandalous Summer, when he shut down Michael’s hospital with very little notice. As they said in this book, three hundred patients had to be immediately transferred. What they didn’t say is that some of those patients certainly died because of that childish tantrum.)
Now, look. I’m a sucker for erotica featuring dubcon (dubious consent, like when one doesn’t explicitly ask for permission and the other one’s reaction — not just physical, but emotional — is torn, undecided, at least at the onset of the sex scene), and power imbalances are really good at creating such scenarios.
But what’s much more difficult for me to take is a whole romance novel resting on power imbalances. I know Olivia isn’t a typical maid or housekeeper. But even though she makes it clear he doesn’t intimidate her, he still often scares her by acting violently or touching her waaaaaay beyond what propriety allows.
The very first scene between them (the one where they actually exchange words, I mean, not the one where he throws a bottle at her) illustrates this perfectly. One minute he’s punching the wall next to her head; the next, he’s stroking her lip and caressing her neck in a vaguely threatening manner. They’re in his bedroom with no one else present, as the butler already fled.
Let me remind you again that this is the first time they’re speaking to each other — he has no idea who she is, all he knows is that she’s his new servant — and this is how he treats her. This is not sexy.
Another example of a deeply unsexy quote from his POV:
He knew why he wanted her. Just as an engineer coveted strange new devices, he wanted to strip her, disassemble her, study her parts, and make her secrets his own.
Wow! If he’d actually said that aloud, I think Olivia wouldn’t have been so quick to let him put a ring on her finger.
But a few scenes that I liked: when she realizes what priceless books he has on his floor, and endeavors to rescue them as he chases her out — that scene was cute, as it felt less ominous and suggested they were more evenly matched, despite their disparity in station. Also I liked her teasing him on the train (when he was so immature as to ignore her/refuse to acknowledge that they’d had sex the night before), and the scene in the village when she uses him to confirm the suspicions of all the snobbish matrons, and also confronts how he called her “brazen” and “shameless” earlier that day. Nice lesson.
But the next sex scene, in the carriage, was also deeply disturbing. You have to read the whole scene to grasp the really unhealthy possessiveness on his part, encapsulated in this:
When she tried to sit up, to assist him, he forced her back down with another, deeper kiss. He did not require assistance. Be still, he did not say, because he did not want her cooperation; it was her submission he craved, and it was his challenge to earn it. Give yourself to me.
Now I think I understand what Duran is going for — she’s portraying an edgier Dom/sub relationship, perhaps even like 50 Shades of Gray (minus the sex toys/bondage games). But the thing is, what those relationships require in order to be healthy and fun and avoid getting seriously abusive, is a verbal agreement, a mutual understanding for the conditions and limitations and a safe exit route for either of them to break off the entire relationship without repercussions. And in Fool Me Twice, that possessive, dominating attitude is entirely contained in Alastair’s head. Olivia has no idea what she’s getting into, and that deeply alarms me. She’s one of the most intelligent, self-sufficient heroines that Duran has written so far, and I don’t think she’s going to be down for all of this!
And on another subject, I’m concerned for her social life after this marriage. Elizabeth was putting it mildly about how hard things were going to be for her — the majority of aristocratic women will NEVER accept her, she’s too much of a huge blinking threat to their own status, because their whole world is built on the class structure and the fact that those servants they order around can never rise to someone they’d sit and have tea with.
So yes, I hope Olivia will get to hang out with Elizabeth, and maybe the heroines of all of Duran’s other contemporary novels, as otherwise the loneliness and rejection she’d suffer would likely take a huge toll on their marriage. (I can’t tell you how much I want to see sequels to a lot of Duran’s novels, especially the ones that involve marriages across class, like in Your Wicked Heart, and I want to see a follow-up on Elizabeth’s drinking problems, because I refuse to believe her marriage to Michael magically cured that. Did people back then even know to avoid alcohol while pregnant??) But yes, the only people who will even talk and make nice with Olivia will be those trying to win favor with her husband, which she will KNOW and that will make her even MORE miserable. This is not a happy future!
Am I taking this too seriously for a romance novel series? Maybe so, but the thing is, Meredith Duran is too damn good of a writer, and she excels at the historical detail. I can’t lower my expectations for her.
In conclusion: Power imbalances played for straight romance creep me out! And almost every significant encounter/moment this couple shared was shot through with them!