Theodora Saxby, who calls herself Theo and is known as Daisy to her childhood friend James, is ugly. By London’s standards, she’s too tall, too thin, and too angular in the face; and the more frills and pearls and flounces her mother puts her in, the more she looks like a man. Theo is up-front with herself about her appearance. She knows that part of the problem is the current style: it’s not flattering for her. Given her own choices, Theo would dress to accentuate the positive and downplay the, um, more masculine features of her look. She feels her attributes are subjective; if she could just get past the “looks” portion of society gatherings, she’d captivate all with her wit.
To that end, she prods James into helping her. James Ryburn, the heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, has all that London considers beautiful: form, figure, even his singing voice is from heaven. James and Theo – his Daisy – grew up together when Theo’s wardship passed to James’ father. James is appalled when she suggests that he pretend to court her during London’s season, to intrigue the other gentlemen of the ton. Theo’s reasoning is that if other men think James likes her, they’ll want to get a closer look at her, and then once she gets them into a conversation, she can win them over on the strength of her personality.
A fair enough plan, with one unforeseen wrinkle. James’ father has bankrupted Theo’s inheritance, and has demanded that James marry her so that his wrongdoings won’t come to light. James is miserable. Theo’s his best friend – he can’t bear the thought of lying to her. And yet he does. He hatches a scheme designed to force a marriage – if you read historical romances, you can guess how it plays out – and yet, the trick’s on him. During his professions of love, motivated by dishonesty, he discovers they’re all true. He does love Theo.
And he’s betrayed her. When the truth comes out, Theo’s crushed, humiliated, angry, despondent…and all this is compounded with the horrid things written in the press. The secret of James and Theo’s marriage – his father’s crimes – is kept between them, and the gossip sheets of London theorize and publish that the Ashbrook union has collapsed because Theo is so ugly.
But as in the original Andersen tale – which, in a delightful admission from James in the author’s note, renders The Ugly Duchess anachronisitc as it was written thirty years after the events in James’ retelling, the ugly duckling grows into her own. During her separation, Theo becomes the guardian of her own style, her own homes, her own life. She once thought she needed James’ public adoration to guarantee her success in society, but she needed only herself. She becomes a smash hit; to mix some metaphors here, she’s a swan rising from the ashes of her failed marriage.
And yet, James was her best friend, her true love. For all his physical beauty, James is a broken man inside. He’s hurt the one he holds most dear, abandoned her in crisis, and failed the father who failed him first. These are heavy burdens to overcome, and his path to redemption is unusual, to say the least.
The Ugly Duchess is one of the best books I’ve read all year. Theo and James are prisoners of others’ deeds and opinions, and must work through the consequences of their own reactions to said deeds and opinions. Their triumph is indeed as graceful and elegant as the proverbial swan. With the trademark James sophistication and pathos, The Ugly Duchess is as rewarding as it is moving.
A true beauty, one might say.
The Ugly Duchess is a published as a part of Avon's annual K.I.S.S and Teal event, a campaign to support National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month. Heart to Heart and Romantic Reads will be bringing you information on this important cause, and all the participating books, throughout the month of September.
Melanie Murray is a writer and editor, and the moderator of Romantic Reads, BN.com's all-romance, all-the-time community forum. You can follow her on Twitter at @Melanie_Murray and get all the latest Barnes & Noble book news from @BNBuzz.