Review: The Portrait of a Duchess – Scarlett Peckham
by Scarlett Peckham
Series: Society of Sirens #2
Also in this series: The Rakess
Publisher: Avon US
Publication Date: April 5, 2023
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
The scandalous women of the SOCIETY OF SIRENS are back with an explosive secret...their ranks include a duchess in disguise
Once upon a time she married in secret...
An activist painter of radicals and harlots, Cornelia Ludgate dismisses love and marriage as threats to freedom. But when an inheritance gives her the chance to fund the cause of women's rights--on the condition she must wed--she is forced to reveal a secret: she's already married. To a man she hasn't seen for twenty years.
Oh...and her husband is a duke.
A horse breeder with a clandestine taste for revolution, Rafe Goodwood never expected to become a duke. But now that the title is his, he is plotting to shock the ruling class with ambitions of reform--and reveal the infamous Cornelia is his duchess. That just presents one problem: he must not fall in love with her--again.
Now they must resist the temptation to rekindle an affair...
Although determined not to sacrifice her principles for passion, Cornelia is still drawn to the man whose very being threatens her independence. Hurt too many times, Rafe can't risk love again--especially with the woman who once shattered his heart. But a conspiracy to upend the inequalities of the aristocracy bring Cornelia and Rafe closer, forcing them to finally decide what--and who--they hold dear.
I gasped out loud when I saw this cover! The covers for this series have been simply amazing! To be honest, it feels like I’ve been waiting forever for this next entry in the Sirens series (it’s only been three years lol but they were COVID years) so I was absolutely overjoyed to see this book pop up. And even better, it’s a second chance romance! While it’s the second book in a series, you don’t need to have read the first book to understand this one.
The Society of Sirens have used the money from Sera’s memoirs to buy land for the Institute for the Equality of Women. Now, they need money to actually build it. It’s Cornelia’s turn to step up, auctioning a series of portraits called The Jezebels depicting prostitutes and other lower class women as religious icons – if she can find a gallery willing to exhibit the scandalous series. Enter Rafe, a man Cornelia hasn’t seen in twenty years. He’s newly inherited her uncle’s dukedom (after being something like eighth in line) and he’s come to inform of her the terms of her uncle’s will. For her to inherit, she needs to be married and settled. Funnily enough, she’s already married…. to Rafe.
Rafe knows his actions twenty years ago – and since – will make getting Cornelia to trust him hard. But his plans to reform Gardencourt and the rest of his newly inherited estate rely on having someone knowledgeable about how it works, and Cornelia managed it for her uncle for years. Cornelia agrees, on one condition – they’ll hold the exhibition of her new portrait series at Gardencourt as part of a masquerade sure to be the most talked about party of the year.
I was expecting Cornelia’s story, who’s definitely anti-marriage and pro-women’s independence, to be a different romance than the first, and oh boy was I pleasantly surprised by some of the turns it took! For Cornelia, ever since the death of her parents, being loved has come at a cost. Her uncle loved her as long as she was a dutiful ward – and the second she erred, he was prepared to toss her away. To her, love is a stifling cage of expectations that she has to fit inside or else she’ll lose it entirely. It’s no surprise that she’s not interested in marriage, and how she ended up married in the first place is told through multiple flashbacks to the events leading up to her and Rafe’s marriage of convenience twenty years ago.
If Cornelia’s fault is that she’s too afraid to open herself up to emotion, Rafe worries about being, well, too much. He knows he has a tendency to fall in love quickly and thoroughly, something that usually startles and drives off the object of his affections. He understands Cornelia’s rejection of marriage – women are after all basically men’s possessions after marriage – but the ability to reject the associated feelings is alien to him.
It goes without saying that there’s still quite a bit of chemistry between the two of them, and while Rafe is ready to fall in love with her (again? or is still in love with her?) Cornelia tries to navigate a path between being completely cold with him and falling back into bed with him. Forced together by the need to overhaul the estate and the house party to plan the masquerade, and by needing to playact as a happy couple in order to get Cornelia’s inheritance, things between them soon come to a head. But has anything really changed between them in twenty years or are they still carrying the same baggage?
One of the things I liked was Cornelia’s love of art and her obvious enjoyment of it, especially when using it in subversive ways. It’s something that young Cornelia is just discovering and something that grown-up Cornelia is very well-versed in. It’s through painting Rafe that’s she’s forced to come to terms with her true feelings for him. It was an interesting bit in a story that often felt like it was missing a lot of the political and cultural action of the prior book.
So while most of the book worked for me – the setup, the differences, the inevitable bleak moment – what didn’t work was the grovel and resolution. After all the setup of this very untraditional couple, what we get is a very traditional grovel and a very traditional ending. Suddenly one character decides they can’t live without the other, and what was previously a relationship-ending dealbreaker is now… not? The frustrating part is that there were definite steps towards growth for the supposedly changed character but nothing that built up into anything more than a step stool let alone the ladder you’d expect.
Overall, I enjoyed the book, even tough it didn’t fully stick the landing for me. Nevertheless, I’m interested to see what comes next. Seraphina has her story – and child – with Adam, Cornelia’s aunt Elinor seems to have something going with Jack, leaving the lovely Thaïs without a partner – and next on the line to secure funds. There’s some interesting byplay into who hers may be and I can’t wait to see whether my suspicions come true!
Content notes: View Spoiler »misogyny, racism, death of parents (before book starts) « Hide Spoiler