The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan

The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney MilanThe Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan
on September 22, 2020
Length: 316 pages
Source: Courtney Milan
Series: The Wedgeford Trials #1
Genres: Fiction, Romance, Historical Romance

Where to find this book:

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Formats Available: Paperback, eBook
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Other stuff you should know:

I received this book for free from Courtney Milan in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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Heads up! This book comes with a content warning (details in the review).

Our rating:


I need to admit something that is possibly terrible: this is my first Courtney Milan book.

I have no excuse for this! I follow Milan on Twitter, and thus have a big crush on her brain. I also have The Brothers Sinister Series boxset, which I’ve been told by every Romance enthusiast is phenomenal, so my neglect of Milan’s work feels particularly egregious.

(Side note: Amazon tells me that I purchased the boxset in February 2018 (!!!), along with Sarah Maclean’s A Rogue by Any Other Name. Which I also haven’t read. This is very embarrassing, and my only defense is that between my book-hoarding tendencies and my ADHD, it’s a miracle that I finish anything before I’m crushed under the weight of my TBR pile. I beg your forgiveness, readers.)

At any rate, I’ve meant to get started on her books, and having read The Duke That Didn’t, I understand now how much I’ve been depriving myself by not acting on that intention. At the risk of gushing: this is a wonderful book.

At the center of The Duke That Didn’t are Chloe Fong and Jeremy Wentworth, childhood sweethearts who team up every year for a few days for the centuries-old Wedgeford Trials, a day-long game hosted by their village that attracts crowds from all over Britain. That is, until two years prior to the beginning of the story, when Jeremy just stops showing up.

That first year he had not come to the Trials, she had waited eagerly—anxiously, even. She’d put him on her list, and the item had remained stubbornly undone, unable to be completed in his absence. Rationality had set in after that first disappointment. Think about him only once today had been on her list for months before she accomplished it even once, and she found herself consistently, illogically, backsliding. At this point, he’d skipped two years of Trials; this would make year three. He wasn’t coming back.

We first meet Chloe as she’s rushing around town to cross items off a very extensive to-do list just days before the 1891 Trials are set to begin. We quickly learn that she is an efficient and dedicated planner, partially because she genuinely needs to be to keep track of the responsibilities she’s taken on in helping her father launch his Unnamed Sauce, but also partially in self-defense. Chloe is sweet, sharp as the edge of a knife, and painfully relatable in her need for order; she feels deeply and craves meaningful relationships with others, but expressing those needs don’t come naturally to her. Making and following lists helps her bridge that gap. 

When Jeremy appears unexpectedly before the Trials, disrupting Chloe’s carefully ordered list with sneaky plans of his own, it’s obvious that he uses humor in the same way Chloe uses her lists: as a way to make himself more palatable to others, and as a shield to hide his insecurities. 

Jeremy is, in a word, a mensch. I fell in love with him as a hero almost immediately — he unabashedly loves Chloe, truly admires her for everything that makes her who she is, and is determined to prove how much he respects her dreams and desires. Milan gives him a voice that is both extremely swoon-worthy and at times laugh-out-loud funny:

He’d told her how he felt, but somehow, whenever he looked at her, his thoughts never came out as something sober and intellectual like I respect the things that matter to you. No. Instead, everything he felt got tied up and turned around into I genuflect to the sovereignty of your list.

Although his absence in the years prior to the beginning of the book plays a huge part in Chloe’s mistrust of him (understandably so), he never comes across to me as thoughtless or uncaring, probably because he’s able to see how his actions have hurt those around him, learn from his mistakes, and change course. 

This self-awareness, genuine concern, and respect for others is found in every relationship in the book. Chloe and Jeremy’s relationship is of course the main example, but what I love about The Duke That Didn’t is that their relationships with their families are just as integral to the story, and actually serve as catalysts for Chloe and Jeremy’s happy ending.

These other relationships — Chloe and her father (Mr. Fong), Jeremy and his mother, Jeremy and Mr. Fong, Jeremy and his aunt — are robust and layered, and there were several scenes between each that brought me to tears. In fact, there’s a series of scenes between Chloe, Jeremy, and Mr. Fong roughly halfway through the book (which I would love to quote but think you should get to experience on your own) that were so emotionally real, heartbreaking, and lovely that I had to put down my kindle and have a good weep.

Which leads me to why I love this book so completely: this year has been almost unrelentingly awful. I wasn’t going to mention this; I know I read romances in part for escapism, and I imagine folks read reviews of romances for similar reasons. 

But given the last six months we’ve all lived through, The Duke Who Didn’t is exactly the kind of book we need in this moment. It’s not that it’s a book without conflict or difficult situations; Chloe lost her mother young, and her father is still reckoning with the secrets of his family’s past in China. Jeremy has spent his life trying to navigate the (sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant) racism that comes with being half-Chinese and a Duke in Victorian England. But it’s the care with which Milan treats these realities and the agency she gives to her characters that makes it such a pleasure to read.

It may sound like hyperbole, but I’m not sure I can explain how cathartic it was to cry over characters who just want to learn how to be good to each other, who get to set (and enforce) boundaries for how they want to be treated, and who reclaim their power only to use it for everyone’s benefit.

Even Chloe and Jeremy’s love scenes reflect this — they’re steamy, but all the more so because they care so much about the other’s desires, and they’re not afraid of honesty. (Also, communication is the sexiest move I know.)

“I’m sorry,” she started to say, “I shouldn’t have said—I didn’t mean to ruin—”

He cut her off with a kiss. “You should have said,” he whispered into her mouth. “You must say; I can have it no other way. You see, I have been imagining this with you every day of my life, and you must give me the opportunity to make you desire me as much as I want you.”

He pulled back. She had a smile on her face, but her eyes glistened.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for trusting me to be good to you.”

(Didn’t I tell you Jeremy was swoon-worthy?)

If I have any complaint — and seriously, it’s such a mild one — it’s that despite being the impetus for nearly all the action, I had a hard time caring about the Wedgeford Trials.

I tried! But the parts that focused on the Trials seemed almost cursory. This isn’t surprising given that The Duke Who Didn’t’s plot is largely character-driven (which is my favorite kind of plot, truth be told, so again — hardly a problem for me), but I didn’t expect those bits to feel so slow and distant given it’s what brought Chloe and Jeremy together in the first place.

So how would I rate The Duke Who Didn’t

I love Chloe’s confidence and her lists, I love Jeremy’s thoughtfulness and his silliness. I love how they complement each other and how organically they grow together.

But, really, I suppose it all comes down to this: it isn’t the first book I’ve picked up in the last six months, but it is the first I’ve finished. My experience with The Duke Who Didn’t was it’s own kind of love story, and so I’m giving it 5 stars.

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