My Last Duchess, written in 2010 by Daisy Goodwin, is a fictional novel set in the 1890's. It is based around the character of Cora Cash, a wealthy American heiress and her (mother's) search for a suitable husband ie. English aristocracy. Their search takes them from the oppulent and decadent Newport, Rhode Island and New York over the seas to Europe and England. Cora's mother is determined that she should marry someone of title to cement their place in American society as, even though the family has money it is still considered to be "new money" rather than a wealth inherited over generations and generations.
Obviously Cora Cash is the main character and pretty much the whole story focuses on her. We also meet her mother, Mrs Cash, her maid Bertha, her American love interest Teddy Van Der Leyden (old money!) and her English love interest Ivo, the Duke of Wareham and his mother the Duchess of Buckingham. There are also numerous secondary characters who bring the story to life more.
As a reader we get to know Cora reasonably well. Arrogant from her very privileged upbringing and constantly being referred to as the richest young lady in America thanks to her father's flour company, extremely spoilt and used to getting her own way, but also utterly stifled by her overbearing mother whose only ambition in life is to be at the top of the social ladder and who believes the way to achieve this is to marry her daughter off well. To begin with I really didn't like Cora at all and was worried how I would get through the whole book with such a disagreeable heroine, but she did improve as the story unfolded, maturing a lot over the time frame and revealing much more positive qualities such as loyalty, innocence and a real desire to fit in with her new surroundings and lifestyle. As the novel progressed I did find myself increasingly drawn to her and wanting to find out what would happen.
All in all I was quite disappointed with the lack of detail given to character description. For me, reading fiction should enable me to be transported to another world and get lost in it and a large part of that is down to the detailed descriptions of both people and places. A lot of that is lacking here. Even after finishing the novel I don't seem to be able to really conjure a picture of any of the main parts very well in my mind at all. I think Cora has blond hair but I'm not 100% sure and if you can come away from a 500 page novel and not even be able to descrivbe the main character adequately I think something is wrong with the writing of it.
Set in post-civil war America to begin with and then moving to London and rural England the settings should have been quite evocative, particularly the parts based in Dorset. Probably unfairly I was expecting something akin to Wuthering Heights or Rebecca in conjuring up a vivid atmosphere and vision of the place in my head but in reality I couldn't even place the Dukes country house in the landscape, let alone picture the interiors.
I found description to be utterly lacking in regards to the settings too. It wasn't detailed enough to bring houses, cities or areas to life for me and even though the novel was quite long, it seemed as though the author never went into very much detail over anything and more time and effort was given to dialogue and thoughts.
Whilst the premise of the novel is nothing new - young girl looking for love - the idea of a rich American girl coming to England to find an aristocratic husband was a new one for me, no others springing immediately to mind. The blurb on the back of the novel leads you to believe that most of the book is about Cora's search for the right husband but in reality she finds him quite early on and then the rest of the novel is about her attempts to create a happy marriage whilst fumbling around the many unwritten rules of the English aristocracy where even the butler and other servants look down on her if she makes a faux pas.
To give her her due she does make a valiant attempt at fitting in and helping her husband restore his rambling, ramshackle estate but she still never feels at home and her husband is always distant from her. Her new mother-in-law obviously does not approve of her sons choice in wife, despite not exactly having a pure white background herself, and only serves to make Coras life more difficult.
There are several twists and turns to the plot which I won't go into as they wouldprobably be considered spoilers, although in truth none of them were very well hidden in the plot and none of them twisted very much so that you could always see what was coming or could guess at what the hidden inferences were way too easily.
The ending, also, was quite a disappointment for me. I have read another review whose author said that she was left wanting another chapter to see how the life of the new Duchess of Wareham panned out and I knew exactly how she felt. Although the "mystery" and "intrigue" (note the sarcastic quotation marks there!) were cleared up the story then just finished. Stop. Just like that. You think you know which way Cora is going to choose to go but there is nothing definite and there really does need to be another chapter, the film equivalent of her walking off into the sunset with somebody, but there isn't and I felt decidedly let down by the abrupt ending.
You've probably concluded from what I've said so far that I hated this book and didn't enjoy it at all and that is what makes it such a difficult book to review, because I actually did quite enjoy it! It could never be considered a literary masterpiece and I think some of the quotes on the back from other readers are incredibly misleading to say the least (eg "Intriguing, atmospheric and extremely stylish"). The quote given on the front from The Sunday Times is probably more apt - "Sparkling and thoroughly engaging...highly enjoyable". As i've already pointed out I distinctly thought this book lacked atmosphere and intrigue but it was, at the end of the day, an enjoyable read.
It in no way lived up to other favourite historical novels of mine (such as Rebecca and Gone With The Wind) in regards to attention to detail or the creation of a world you just curl up on the sofa with and get lost in and I don't think I'll even remember it in a year or twos time, let alone have long discussions about it with friends or rave about it. But if someone asked me for an easy reading, holiday kind of read, recommendation I would probably pass this on to them. It is definitely easy to read, both from a practical point of view - the chapters are broken down well so that they're not so long that you lose interest but they're short enough to make you think "I'll just read one more chapter" - and from a writing point of view.
So if you're after an enjoyable book that in no way challenges you as a reader then by all means settle down with this one for a few hours. I can't imagine that you'd be disappointed, as long as you're not expecting a literary classic, although the distinct lack of detail with both the characters and the places, the failure to create any kind of atmosphere and the abrupt ending did leave me feeling dissatisfied when I finished it. All in all not a book I'll be keeping on my shelves to read over and over again and one I'm glad I got from a charity shop for only £1.
My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin is an historical novel, set in the 1890s in America and England, about a young American heiress, Cora Cash, her mother's quest for an English title for her daughter and her marriage.
Cora lives with every possible luxury in Newport, Rhode Island, and New York. She is said to be the richest girl in the world, but money can't buy her freedom from her mother. She longs to be free, to be married, but her mother has plans - she wants Cora to marry into the impoverished English aristocracy, something her money should allow her to do. Cora falls in love, but soon finds that even money can't make life a bed of roses.
The story of My Last Duchess is far from original - the rich girl who only longs for her freedom can be found in numerous other places. The story is enjoyable, however, although fairly predictable - the hints as to the secrets behind Cora's marriage are given early on, but are far too obvious. A hint should leave the reader wondering what is hidden behind the happy facade, not give the whole game away. I admit I wasn't entirely sure which direction the story would take at the very end (and in the event there is some potential ambiguity), but that was the only point.
I mentioned the ending above - Cora makes her choice, and seems to be decided on it, but a passing comment between other characters who could have been involved had the choice gone the other way indicates that perhaps all is not so black and white as it seems. The hint is there that things could change - but not from Cora's point of view, whose choice it is. This is a strange ending, neither clear cut nor ambiguous. The ambiguity is itself ambiguous! I was looking for another chapter to tie things up, but it just stopped and I'm really not sure what the ending means for Cora's future.
Although enjoyable, the novel feels very lightweight. The best historical novels are completely absorbing, weaving multiple stories around numerous characters, but in My Last Duchess there is little more than the main story of Cora and her marriage. The details in addition feel like they merely skim the surface compared to other novels set in similar periods - although we are treated to descriptions of the almost unbelievable opulence that the Cash family live in, I found it hard to build a picture of them, their houses or their lives, something which I feel is important to an historical novel to allow readers to become immersed in the past.
The characters do not on the whole elicit any strong feelings. I didn't like or dislike Cora - she was very arrogant about her money and how she believed she could use it to makes others lives better, but on the other hand I felt some sympathy for her at times. At no point though did I find myself either loathing or loving her. Her servant, Bertha, was generally more likeable than Cora herself, but again I wasn't terribly bothered by her. Additionally, the villains of the piece were quite obvious from the moment they were introduced, and although they were unpleasant characters I didn't feel strongly towards them as you should towards the best villains.
Goodwin writes well, and although she takes a few historical liberties with the timing of actual events, she explains these in her author's note. Her style is enjoyable but again doesn't elicit any strong feelings either way - while I can't really fault it, I also can't rave about it.
Lightweight really is the best word to describe My Last Duchess. But that doesn't necessarily have to be a negative point - it is a perfectly enjoyable read, can be read quickly and without a great deal of concentration. These are all good qualities in a book when you simply want to relax and read on a lazy Sunday afternoon or on holiday. My Last Duchess is a straightforward novel, one which does not arouse strong feelings, and is therefore a pleasant read.
This review was first published under my username on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk, and a review copy of the book was recieved from the publisher through Curious Book Fans.