I’m terrible at titles, but I did want to highlight what I saw as the main difference between these two romance novels (both of which I enjoyed). Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore is a pretty standard historical romance, set in late Victorian England (rather than the usual Regency period). The time period is important, as politics are central to Dunmore’s plot. Her heroine, Annabelle Archer, has seized the opportunity to escape domestic drudgery and enroll in Oxford, were she involves herself in the suffrage movement. She is tasked with recruiting influential men to the cause, and it is this mission that brings her into the orbit of Sebastian Devereaux, the Duke of Montgomery. Hi support for the suffrage movement, however, would endanger his relationship with Queen Victoria and in turn his ability to reclaim his family’s estate, which his father gambled away. A unique aspect of this romance is Dunmore’s characterization of Annabelle. Often in historical romance the heroine is a spinster due to a broken engagement or some sort of scandal in which the woman is innocent. Here, however, Annabelle is unmarried because of a youthful sexual liaison. She is ruined, but she still refuses to settle for anything less than a full romantic partnership as well as intellectual stimulation.
Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is a nice contrast. Set in contemporary Silicon Valley, the novel follows Stella Lane, a brilliant, wealthy econometrician who is also autistic. She thrives on routine and prefers to work rather than socialize, but eventually her own isolation (along with prompting by her parents) causes her to set up an arrangement with a male escort, Michael Phan, to practice intimacy. Their relationship is necessarily secretive–Stella can’t tell her coworkers or parents that Michael is an escort, and Michael keeps his business a secret from his family, who would disapprove. (He enjoys escorting but does it primarily to make money to pay for his mother’s cancer treatment).
I didn’t know until writing this review that Helen Hoang herself has Autism Spectrum Disorder. While writers can certainly write about things that they haven’t personally experienced, I think Hoang’s perspective here lends an extra level of authenticity to the story. For example, a major theme of the book is clothing. Stella cannot stand open seams or itchy fabrics, so she wears a version of her preferred work attire everywhere. She notices immediately that Michael’s clothes are well made, and in fact he is a talented designer and tailor. In a sweet and amusing turn of events, Michael introduces Stella to athleisure–she loves how yoga pants are soft but also constricting. I also appreciate how the novel refuses to romanticize some of the challenges of autism. Stella is brilliant and single-minded at work, but she can also unintentionally say awkward and rude things, as she does in a cringe-inducing scene with Michael’s family, where she offends his mother, grandmother, and all of his sisters.