Meredith Duran’s books are auto-buys for me. When my husband and I were living on an island in Wales, Anglesey, in 2010-2011, I told him that what I wanted most for my 31st birthday was to drink slowly for a long time while reading books on our veranda that overlooked the Menai Straits.
(I couldn’t find a picture, so you’re stuck with this video of me running to get a sense of place)
That day I read The Duke of Shadows.
It remains one of my most favorite romance novels, out of the hundreds and hundreds I’ve read. And while I very much enjoyed Duran’s other book s, The Duke of Shadows, after at least 10 re- reads, remains a singular romance novel for me.
In many ways this is because that book and her others to some extent, well, they’re expansive. The Duke of Shadows moves between continents, is set in a time when English colonial rule in India was rightly threatened. A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal, for instance, features Nell coming into her own within the setting of the unsafe pits of the early industrial revolution. There is always the romance, so well done and so wonderfully written. But it’s that the world is at stake. A way of thinking, a break in the way people understood the world has been the backdrop for Duran’s romances.
So I found myself surprised while reading That Scandalous Summer to be thinking of Courtney Milan. Now, I adore Milan’s novels. But they’re focused and tunneled in a way–in a way I like very much. I’m not a romangstperson, unless you’re Joanna Bourne. Milan’s novels are funny and vibrant but the settings don’t often invoke the kind of urgency of a world about to turn that Duran’s earlier books do so well.
And that’s what I think is missing in Duran’s newest. I even wondered if that’s what Jennie at Dear Author meant when she wrote of the book in a review yesterday that she “ended up feeling…disappointed.” It’s only the ellipses that make me think that. Because, and I speak for myself, this book, written by any other author, might not evoke the same reaction. And I don’t think that the setting of Duran’s other books meant that we forgave her for “implausible set-ups,” but maybe we’ve come to expect Duran’s characters to be plagued, threatened, in the midst of a philosophical conundrum that seems larger than the financial well-being of a widow or a second son (even if he’s a doctor at an indigent hospital).
There are plenty of things to like in this book: that we are first introduced to Liza when she’s drunk and snoring in Michael’s bushes; that Michael thinks things like “abstinence made him a very bad poet”; that Liza wonders if she’s over her broken heart because “She tested herself, the way one might tongue a sore tooth. The ache was still there, but much diminished.”
There are glorious sentences and sentiments in the book that, out of context, would be wonderful in any book in any genre, for instance that love “was a handhold amid the torrent, but everyone eventually fell into the river.”
And I did hope for the characters. I did. Yet.
At the end of the day, this romance novel succeeds for me because of one scene. A scene that I think is momentous, bigger than this book. A scene that I have been waiting to read in a romance novel since I began reading them almost 20 years ago.
Liza’s grief over her mother’s passing is nearly crippling; and after she realizes she loves Michael and may have lost him, she finally visits her mother’s grave. This is the scene that I found so profound:
“With her mother’s death, she had imagined that she would never again find someone to love her unconditionally. But she had forgotten that there would always be someone who did so: she, herself.
You are a wonder, Michael had told her.
She was determined to be nothing less. But if she failed, sometimes, to live up to his view of her…then she would love herself anyway. Never again would she allow herself to do otherwise.”
Even if I wanted more to be at stake in That Scandalous Summer, even if I felt like something was missing, there is this scene. Sure, there’s a HEA, but that the most profound HEA comes before the end of the book and before the final conflict, and it is a woman recognizing that she is enough for herself. This is what I’ve always wanted. Other books have come close to this. But not in this way and I’m grateful for this moment. And so I’m grateful for this book. Even if I wished, at times, it went about its ways differently.