I have to send a thank you to the library user who recommended this book to me. I don’t know her name, but we had a nice chat about romance books — and she came back to the Reference desk to make sure I had the title correct. She said she thoroughly enjoyed it. I did, too!
The story takes place in the late 1800s. Cora Cash is one of those rich, eligible, young women whose father makes more money than they can spend. Her mother aspires to have the status of the Vanderbilts or Astors, and has set her sights on a titled husband for her daughter.
While riding in an English fox hunt, Cora breaks away from the pack and falls from her horse. The handsome man who finds her and brings her to his drafty ancestral home is none other than the Ninth Duke of Wareham. Cora’s mother could not possibly object when the Duke declares his love for Cora and asks for her hand.
The marriage is less of a fairy tale.
Ivo, as the Duke is called by friends, seems to care for Cora. But his emotions get tied up in knots over how things look. It is not just the social customs that must be maintained, but he is also struggling to make sure that Cora is nothing like his own mother.
For her part, Cora loves the Duke. She tries to please him by fixing up his family home, but in doing so she only fuels rumors that the Duke married the rich heiress for her money. In addition to walking a fine line with his pride, Cora has to adjust to living in a foreign country and learning to cope with her domineering mother-in-law. Her troubles seem especially poignant at the Duke’s home, where the servants are civil to her face, but unlikely to follow any requests that aren’t deemed “proper” (like removing the many pictures of Ivo’s mother and her former lover, the Prince of Wales, from the bedrooms).
Instead of talking to one another, the couple struggle with misconceptions that might break them apart.
While the story has opportunities to go gothic, it doesn’t. The old home is certainly drafty, but Goodwin resisted the tired “dark and stormy night” scenarios. Cora is surprisingly sympathetic as well. She easily could have turned out to be spoiled and heartless, but she isn’t. Spoiled, for sure, but she doesn’t turn out to be the shrew. Snappy dialogue and interesting secondary characters also kept me turning the pages. I especially liked Bertha, Cora’s maid from South Carolina. It is through Bertha’s eyes that the book shows the “downstairs” portion of the social classes.
Goodwin’s book provides lots of details of the Gilded Age: the extravagant parties, the fashionable clothing, the social expectations. She notes in the Acknowledgements that “When it comes to the Gilded Age, the more fantastical the circumstance, the more likely it is to be true.”
I would recommend this as a good read-alike for fans of Downton Abbey or even The Great Gatsby.
Check the WRL catalog for The American Heiress