No, not that Fergie. I’m talking about Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. The one who used to be married to (and still lives with) Prince Andrew. She also recently published a book. Which is unfortunately not a salacious royal family tell all, but a romance novel. About her ancestor. Not sure about you, but that seems a little weird to me. Anyway… this book was not anywhere near my radar until I came across a copy that was both half off and signed.
Obviously, I bought it. And for some reason, I couldn’t just let it be one of those weird books on my shelves I’ve never actually read. So I thought I’d blog my journey through this five-hundred-plus page romance novel so you can all suffer with me (or enjoy my pain). Because as evidenced by the crazy post I wrote last February, this is the month I like to torture myself with romance novels.
Warning: lots of spoilers below, so if you want to read this book yourself, maybe skip this post. Or keep reading and spare yourself. Totally up to you. But if you keep reading, definitely get some snacks because this is a long one.
I am already regretting this and I haven’t even hit chapter two yet. Our protagonist, Lady Margaret is engaged to a man she loathes. Because of course she is. He also hates her, but wants her money and her family refuses to believe he’s an asshole. So she is going to her betrothal party with her perfectly tiny waist, which her mother made sure to measure (she literally carries around a measuring tape whenever Margaret gets dressed). Also, why do all the heroines in Victorian romance novels have a nineteen inch waist? Very specific and very small. And it is always mentioned. I read very few historical romances, and this is at least the third time I’ve read that.
Anyway, we have another five-hundred pages for Margaret to not marry the Earl of Killin, so of course she decides to ditch the party and take off through the gardens. Where she crashes into the “solid bulk” of a Scotsman with an unpleasant beard, named Donald. I really hope he is not supposed to be her love interest, but based on the enormous number of clichés so far, I’m betting he is. Anyway, she escapes his attempt to drag her back into the party and runs off into the night. Which is where we end chapter one.
Honestly, I am really not feeling this. But a little part of my brain that likes reading things I hate is telling me to keep going. What can I say? Sometimes it’s really fun to trash books I don’t like. And I don’t even feel bad because I’m pretty sure Fergie will never see this and will be totally fine in her fancy palace even if she does. She already got my money. So whatever. This also has pretty good reviews on Goodreads (although one calls it “knockoff Bridgerton“, which is definitely the vibe I’m getting). Either way, I do not think I’m going to like this.
Chapter two jumps back in time and is conveniently set in Windsor Castle. Fingers crossed for some elaborate descriptions of the castle itself since, you know, Fergie has spent a decent amount of time there.
Chapter two broke my brain
I was planning to read a few more chapters before updating, because otherwise this post will be insanely long. But chapter two is… a lot. So we’re four months in the past and Margaret goes to visit her bestie, Princess Louise, at the castle and immediately comments on how thin she looks. To which Louise replies that her age and waist match perfectly – a perfect seventeen. When Margaret laments her own size, Louise comments, “what you need is a dose of tubercular meningitis”. I kid you not. I don’t even care if that’s historically accurate to the sexist standards of Victorian England, it’s crazy toxic and the constant fixation on thinness in this book is honestly starting to make me uncomfortable.
But oh, it gets worse! They go to have tea and Margaret asks Louise if she’ll have just a tiny slice of cake. And Louise says “not even a crumb. I have no intention of ending up like Mama.” This book then spends another whole seven lines of dialogue fat-shaming Queen Victoria. Bitch, that woman had nine children, lost the love of her life after twenty years of marriage, and ruled a literal empire for sixty-three years. She does not deserve to be fat shamed in a twenty-first century romance novel.
Chapter two then proceeds to have Louise also trash her mother for having nine children and therefore setting “the fashion” for all other women to have too many kids, and also still mourning her husband and being “determined that no-one else be allowed to extract a single drop of joy from life if she cannot.” We finish this dumpster fire of a chapter with Margaret admitting that she is talentless and ignorant compared to her super-brilliant friend, Louise.
I didn’t expect this to be my first hate-read of 2022, but I guess that’s happening now.
Rip off all the romance novels, but make it bad
This book is so long and I don’t care about a single one of the characters. This story is so predictable and boring. If you have ever read a romance book, or even a book with a romance subplot, you’ve pretty much read the basic plot of this book. This one just has a lot of rich people problems and unhealthy and extremely problematic body image issues dumped on top of the million and one clichés.
Also, to the reviewer who called this knockoff Bridgerton – spot on! There are literally gossip columns interspersed throughout the book that are very Lady Whistledown-esque (I haven’t read the book, but I did watch the show and definitely had Julie Andrews’s voice in my head while reading those parts). I can’t help thinking that maybe Fergie just got away with copying other romance writers because she’s famous. It’s not clever, but I can tell she thinks it is (see evidence here). The only reason I’m still reading this book is because I’m mad that I bought it and am how flying through it fueled by rage. Sounds like a great reading experience, right?
I am also still salty about the Queen Victoria thing and it’s making me just dislike this whole book even more. Why is it so long?
“Please don’t come to the church again”
Ladies and gentleman, we have another love interest. And his name is Father Sebastian. You read that right. Love interest numéro deux (not counting the Earl of Killin) is a priest who Margaret is “instantly drawn to”. Naturally, they fall in love and have a whole Pride and Prejudice “but we can’t be together because of circumstances” scene, which I’m sure was meant to be reminiscent of Mr. Darcy, but gave me major Mr. Collins vibes. Possibly because Collins is the worst and so is this book. Also, my brain couldn’t help but picture the hot priest from Fleabag, and there’s a very uncomfortable jumble going on in my head right now. This book is like if Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion had an incredibly annoying child who is obsessed with Bridgerton.
Anyway, they kiss and are in insta-love and he proposes and it’s all supposed to be so very romantic. But when she decides to stand up for herself and have a (very) brief moment of being a strong heroine, her father makes if very clear she’s a useless waste of space unless she marries the man who hates her. So she ends it with Sebastian so her family won’t disown her. Because what ever would she do without all her riches after marrying a middle-class man? The shame!
But all of this AND THEN she doesn’t marry the Earl after all and is instead sent away? But first she serves as a bridesmaid for Princess Helen where she is informed by Louise that they can’t be seen speaking anymore because of the scandal. Lady Whistledown is ruining everything by paying attention to Margaret’s teenage antics.
The thing that really gets me is that this is actually based on a real person. But literally all that’s known about Margaret is that she was born, got married, had children, and died. So Fergie imagined everything else and could have gone anywhere she wanted with it, but does this. We’re not even halfway through. I already know where this is going to end, and I cannot handle one more love interest being carelessly thrown into this story. Did I mention this book is incredibly long. When I FINALLY make it through, it will be the longest book I’ve read so far this year.
(Note: the quote I used to title this section is from Fleabag and not this book because I can’t separate them anymore and this is the only thing that made sense.)
So many problems
So Margaret is sent away to live in Scotland, which I am predicting will lead to a run-in with a certain Scotsman. But there is a line that made me realize what my main issue is with this book. Margaret is staying with Lady Powerscourt (yes, I Googled and that was her real name). And she’s basically having a meltdown about how terrible her life is and that her dad hates her. And Lady Powerscourt literally tells her “you are far too valuable an asset to be written off completely.”
And it clicked in my brain that this book is bothering me so much because it so fully embraced Victorian stereotypes. So far in this book, Margaret has been portrayed as weak, impulsive, and very easily influenced by others. And she’s treated like a piece of property the whole time. She’s only nineteen at this point (this book follows her from the ages of seventeen to twenty-seven), but I don’t have high hopes for her gaining much maturity before the end of this book. She has moments of attempting to be a strong heroine, but the second someone says no, she completely falls apart. She’s concerned about marrying for love, but when presented with the choice between love and money, she chooses to stay in her father’s good graces, which backfires anyway.
I just think there was an opportunity here to make Margaret a really dimensional, interesting, strong character and instead we have a main character who is a flighty little pawn. When Viscount Powerscourt returns home and Margaret decides she must escape to go live her life, I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt a little bit. But surprise! She gets a letter from Donald himself and is convinced to stay in Scotland after all. My least favorite bit here (besides having a love interest named Donald) is that in her letter she is so very pleased for herself for using a big word, literally writing “if my loquacity (isn’t that a wonderful word!) has frightened you off, I will understand.”
Or I thought it was my least favorite until she writes that they’re getting a visitor, Viscount Powerscourt’s brother who is described as a “black sheep, bad penny, fop” and that Lady Powerscourt has told her to beware of him. Margaret relates all of this to Donald and then writes, “you must not fret, I have not reached the grand old age of almost twenty-one without being able to take care of myself.” I’m pretty sure he’s gay, but Margaret of course assumes he’s into her because he’s unmarried and a man. Very confusing because there’s a Donald waiting for her in America. But then the black sheep leaves and she can fawn over Donald and pout about her family without distraction. Again.
The Donald returns and Margaret is an idiot
Donald returns from America and magically appears without warning in the doorway of the house Margaret is staying at. He’s also shaved his gross beard, and she almost doesn’t recognize him. They go riding (alone, because this book isn’t scandalous enough) and end up at a waterfall. Enjoy the cringeworthy scene for yourself. He kisses her and she gets her third proposal of this book with a full two-hundred pages to go. But then she turns him down because of all her “numerous imperfections” and the fear he’d want to change her. Then she tells him she’s thinking of fleeing to America where she knows no one.
I will spare you the ensuing conversation between Margaret and Lady Powerscourt because of the sheer number of eye-rolls it induced. I can’t get over the fact that we have a protagonist who is portrayed as so dense and unnecessarily dramatic. How am I supposed to root for someone when all I want to do is slap some sense into her. Spoiler: in real life, Margaret marries Donald. This book could have and should have been two-hundred pages shorter. Three-hundred and fifty pages is a very respectable length for a romance novel. But no. The suffering continues.
Margaret makes it to New York, and is still an idiot
I was actually surprised that Margaret does travel to America, but props to her for actually following through on something she thought about for more than two minutes. And of course she goes to New York, because where else is there to go in America? Naturally, she is staying at the Fifth Avenue Hotel because it’s super fancy and marble. And then we get this paragraph, which is a very good portrayal of how helpless and clueless Margaret is, just in general:
“After the excitement of their arrival in the city, Margaret’s mind was preoccupied with practical matters. How did one summon a maid? Was she to unpack her belongings herself? Dress herself? How did one order meals? Did one eat in private or in the public dining room? If a female guest sat in one of the saloons alone, did she risk being accosted? All of the conventions she took for granted might not apply now she was on the other side of the Atlantic.”
Dress herself? The horror. Not to worry, she has a chaperone to take care of everything so Margaret doesn’t need to worry about anything ever. So she decides to “engage with the locals” since she plans to stay in New York and not be a tourist. She starts with the legendary Mrs. Astor, because why the hell not? We’re then treated to a Lady Whistledown column entitled “No Barbarians at the Gate – Mrs. William Astor’s Annual Extravaganza” all about how there is a literal gatekeeper turning away the new money. Just in case we doubted how snobby these people are. The column finishes by talking about the two intrepid “Scotch women” who managed to get invites, which means there will be something exciting and new at the ball this year.
After many more balls and soirees and shopping trips, Margaret decides she will become a writer. A whole month later, her “Journal of a Novice New Yorker” (which literally begins “Dear Diary”) is published in a magazine. She starts publishing articles about being strong and kind and being yourself and letting her “heart be her compass”. Yes, the title is in the book.
Margaret becomes a strong, independent… Karen
I have spent this whole book being annoyed at how weak and immature our protagonist is. And she finally gets some guts! And is primarily utilizing them to get published by demanding they give her a chance and immediately getting it because she’s a pretty white girl with a nineteen inch waist, and you know, privilege. And girl’s getting published left and right in big papers and magazines. Which gives her enough confidence to berate a waiter who asked that she wait in line at Delmonico’s like everyone else. How dare! Everyone is indignant on her behalf.
I’m going to be honest, I’ve done a fair bit of skimming this book because I hate it and it’s long. But I have still noted three times the descriptor “Titan-haired” was used. Three. The first two were in newspapers describing Margaret’s escapades. But this one was used to describe her in dialogue. Which feels weird. But that brings me to how much I hate the dialogue in this book. It’s a weird mix of historical, flowery language and modern phrases. So many things like “that is so wrong” feel anachronistic (and yes, my brain morphed from a Scottish to a Valley Girl accent when I read that line). Even if this story wasn’t hurting my head, the writing itself would.
Oh, and we get yet another love interest. Because New York would be ever so boring without a fling (while thinking of Donald the whole time, of course). But she dumps him because he doesn’t compare to Donald and then proceeds to write a children’s story about a noisy chicken named Cluckalot. Not even kidding.
Finally the end!
Louise is getting married and sends Margaret a letter letting her know she’ll happily receive well-wishes because Margaret can’t come (she’s still not allowed in polite society outside of New York). Somehow I missed that Father Sebastian died, but he’s been dead two years now and his sister writes Margaret in honor of that occasion. (Seriously, what even is this book?) Everyone (including Lady Whistledown, or whoever writes the knockoff column in this book) is very impressed that Margaret is deigning to do charity work with poor, dirty people. Clearly a saint.
We jump forward two years and now Margaret is visiting love interest number three? (I can’t keep track anymore, but the American one), the wife she introduced him to, and their newborn, Margarita. Named after Margaret, of course, because she’s the bestest best friend. The baby, for some unfathomable reason, is nicknamed “Petite Rita”. After some baby head sniffing, Margaret decides to go home to Scotland. Where she and her mother immediately go visit Donald, on official business, naturally. Donald is now a member of Parliament and super-important and the queen is visiting his estate, which apparently prompts all the fancy people to flock there or something. I barely know what’s going on anymore.
The sound I made when, twenty-something pages toward the end, the perspective switches to Donald mid-chapter was probably most akin to a dying cow. Because WHAT? Send help please. Obviously that was the only way for us readers to find out that he still loves her, never thought he would see her again, and is now cautiously hopeful. He then proceeds to impress her by… wait for it… skipping stones on a river. Now we’re just switching perspectives like every two paragraphs with no clear delineation, presumably just to make me cry.
Ok we made it to the actual ending! Margaret tells Donald she’s twenty-seven and mature now. They profess their love for each other and decide to get married. But there is so much to figure out they decide to wait two years to actually tie the knot. Only then do they realize two years is a long time to wait after being in love for almost a decade. So Margaret says they can just be careful and Donald is “delighted” carries her off into the “intimacy of the cabin”. They get married pretty much exactly two years later and we end with a scene at Christmas one year after that with their infant son and their perfect happily ever after.
I was willing to give this a chance. It has pretty decent reviews and I thought it might be a fun historical romance novel. But it’s a hell no from me. Almost all of characters all annoyed me. The writing was not good and the pacing was so slow and jumpy, it was giving me anxiety. I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea. In the author’s note, she says she spent fifteen years on this book weaving her own story with that of Margaret’s. Which might be why it felt so disjointed to me. Either way, the whole concept of this book didn’t really work. I’m so disappointed we couldn’t even get a strong protagonist to root for.
Full disclosure here, historical romance isn’t typically my thing. But I have read a few I’ve really enjoyed (particularly Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore). Personally, I like when they subvert the sexist tropes and give us kickass female characters. This book did the exact opposite by a mile. The cringe is seriously strong with this one. But I did make it through! I just wish I hadn’t.
So much happened in this book, I probably don’t remember most of it at this point (which I’m taking to mean my brain is trying to protect itself). But none of it was good. Save yourselves and skip this one.
ETA: Forgot to add this initially, but it was written with Marguerite Kaye, who is apparently so unimportant her name is not on the cover, just the title page. So there was a co-writer, ghost writer whatever on this book and it is still this awful.