Daphne Bridgerton and her seven siblings were raised in a happy, loving home, and consequently, she wants nothing more than to marry and have children of her own. However, she can't seem to find an acceptable suitor. The few men who have asked for her hand are either too old or otherwise unsuitable, and those with whom Daphne might consider a match seem to only be able to think of her as a friend rather than a wife. When she chances to meet her brother's best friend, Simon, at a ball, the pair begin to cook up a charade that they hope will get both of them what they want.
In sharp contrast to Daphne, Simon Basset has never known the love of family. His mother died in childbirth and his father was a cold, unfeeling man who emotionally destroyed Simon because of his speech impediment. As a result of his father's cruelty, the embittered Simon has decided that he has absolutely no intentions of ever marrying or having children, but as one of the most eligible men in England, it doesn't look like he'll be able to avoid the matchmaking mothers of the ton for very long. When he meets Daphne and learns of her predicament, Simon suggests that they pretend to be courting. In return for their efforts, he believes that the ladies will keep their distance from him, and Daphne will become more popular for having had the attentions of a duke. What they didn't count on was their alliance turning into friendship, and then friendship blossoming into romance. Whatever is a girl to do when the man she loves refuses to marry her even after compromising her, and worse yet, how can Daphne ever convince Simon that the secrets he's been keeping from her are hurting only himself and not the dead father against whom he is seeking vengeance?
Up until I was about 150 pages into The Duke and I, I was beginning to think I had started my second much-lauded romance series in a row, only to be sorely disappointed with it, but somehow Julia Quinn managed to pull out all the stops during the second half of the book and make me forget most of my frustrations from the first half. The two halves almost seemed like they were written in completely different styles. The beginning of the book wasn't bad, but it did dip down into the just OK range for me a few times. This part is extremely dialog heavy, and while there is some clever and witty repartee, the conversations can also drag on a bit too long. Most of the early chapters are virtual wall-to-wall dialog (great for dialog junkies, but utterly exhausting for an introvert like myself to read) punctuated with occasional passages of prose that more closely resembled narration than character introspection. This made it very difficult for me to get to know or develop a connection to the characters. Considering that most of what occurred during the first half were family interactions, I realized much later that Ms. Quinn was likely using this part of the book to set the stage for the Bridgerton series by giving readers insights into the family dynamics of the Bridgerton clan. There is very little relationship building between Simon and Daphne except for Simon attending a few Bridgerton family functions, and the couple having an attraction for one another that makes them wish that their pretend courtship was actually real. The sexual tension is very minimal, with the hero and heroine not kissing, nor barely even touching, until that halfway point. I did enjoy getting to know the Bridgertons and adored the loving, close-knit feel of their family (one I wouldn't mind calling my own), but I couldn't help but tire of the excessive amount of light, social chitchat, and found myself wishing for some deeper and more meaningful interactions. Well, I got my wish approximately halfway in, when the dialog began to take a more serious turn, the prose became more introspective, and both became much more balanced. The tension between Simon and Daphne ratcheted up almost instantaneously as they share a passionate encounter that leads to all sorts of angst and difficulties to overcome, which was what I had been so desperately longing for. From this point on, the story was top-notch and almost sheer perfection for me.
After reading the heartbreaking prologue about Simon's childhood, I was fully expecting him to be a thoroughly tortured hero. Because of the weaknesses in the first half of the book, I did begin to question my assessment, but I shouldn't have worried. Simon's mother died in childbirth and his father was a cold man who never showed him an ounce of love, and in fact, reviled him for having a stutter. In spite of, or perhaps because of, his father's rejection, Simon stubbornly set out to be the very best he could be. He was incredibly intelligent, and with the help of his gentle, caring nurse, he learned to control his speech, and was able to enjoy a prosperous education even though his father tried to deny him that as well. Simon grew into a good and kind man, but he was also deeply embittered and resentful toward his father after years of constant emotional abuse and had vowed never to marry or have children of his own because of it. Simon truly didn't realize just how much the anger was eating him up inside or how desperately he needed to love and be loved in return until Daphne came into his life, shining a ray of hope into his darkness.
In sharp contrast to Simon's upbringing, Daphne's had been brimming full of love, laughter and unbreakable family bonds. She is sweet and kind to everyone, including one annoyingly needy and pathetic suitor. Coming from a large family, she wants nothing more than to marry and have children, but unfortunately, she has become the girl that every guy wants to be friends with, but no one wants to marry. Then she chances to meet Simon, one of her brother, Anthony's best friends from school, and they strike up an alliance to pretend that they are courting, so that he can avoid being the object of every unmarried girl's attention and she can attract more attention from better quality suitors. Simon and Daphne become the best of friends, finding it very easy to talk to each other and thoroughly enjoying each others presence. Of course, they both end up wishing that their charade was real, and when that finally happens, it brings with it plenty of joy but also heartbreak. Daphne is a highly intuitive young woman who has a great grasp on male behavior and deftly handles the men in her life. She understands Simon far better than he understands himself, and seems to instinctively know what he needs. I loved her zest for life and her positive attitude. She was definitely a doer who wasn't afraid to get in the middle of things and stir them up, but she also had a knack for bringing clarity to some of the most difficult circumstances. Daphne was just an all-around, likable character, who I think was a perfect match for Simon.
As one might expect with the heroine having a big family, there is a very large supporting cast. All of Daphne's siblings are introduced in this book, but her three older brothers, Anthony, Benedict and Colin play the biggest roles. This trio can be quite meddlesome and over-protective, but it all comes from a deep love for their sister, so I couldn't help but adore them for it. I think perhaps his support of Daphne and his devil-may-care attitude made Colin stand out to me just a bit more than the other two, but I look forward to seeing what stories Julia Quinn has in store for all of them. Violet is a wonderful mother to her brood of eight. I really admired the way that she could keep them all in line, including her grown sons. Violet is an intelligent woman who sees far more than her children think she does, and she is an extremely loving mother with whom they can discuss almost anything, except perhaps sex. I totally cracked up when Violet had "the talk" with Daphne on the night before her wedding, and the pursuant misunderstandings that occurred on Daphne's wedding night as a result of her mother's reticence were hilarious too. I discovered through Julia Quinn's website that a couple of characters from her previous books have cameos in The Duke and I, specifically Lady Danbury from How to Marry a Marquis. There is also a brief mention of Riverdale (James Sidwell), her nephew and the hero of that book. I have to say that I'm thoroughly intrigued by the fictitious gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown, and can't wait to find out who she is. I spent the better part of the book making speculations, but I'm not sure that any of my guesses are correct.
The Duke and I is the first book in Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series. There are eight books in the series with each of the Bridgerton siblings getting their own book. Anthony is the hero of book #2, The Viscount Who Loved Me, and they continue from there in the order of the character's ages with the exception of the final two. There are also two anthologies featuring Lady Whistledown that are considered to be honorary Bridgerton books. Julia Quinn is working on 2nd epilogues for each of the books in the series. Six out of eight of the books have these 2nd epilogues available for purchase in e-book format through the author's website, but unfortunately, The Duke and I is not currently one of them. Ms. Quinn says that when she finishes the remaining two there are plans to publish all of them in a single paperback volume, and I look forward to seeing more of Simon and Daphne when their 2nd epilogue is written. The Duke and I may have gotten off to a rocky start for me, but it ended spectacularly, making it almost impossible for me not to give it keeper status. This was my first read by Julia Quinn, and I am now really looking forward to continuing the series and reading more from her. I just hope that from here on out her dialog and prose will equalize much earlier in the story.
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