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The success of Netflix’s Bridgerton has sent the book series by Julia Quinn skyrocketing back up the bestseller list. We asked two Slate staffers—neither of whom had ever read a romance novel before—to get out of their comfort zones and give the steamy first installment, The Duke and I, a try. Below, these former romance novel virgins discuss their first foray into the genre.
Seth Maxon: What was your previous romance-novel exposure going into The Duke and I?
Madeline Ducharme: I’ve always hated those cheesy covers of thick, cheap, paperback romance novels. Maybe it was my latent queerness, but something about the bulging muscles and sighing women in that corny art style just immediately turned me off. Stuff like this.
Maxon: I am little bit older than you, and also a straight man, and these sorts of covers did always make me laugh more than anything. I think a youth spent with Fabio as a ubiquitous romance-novel cover model and cultural joke as a dumb hunk who women nonetheless fantasized about forged my general impression of romance novels as fundamentally silly, if hot to some.
But I did have a few other expectations formed beyond His Blondness. Like, in college I read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen for a class, and my memory of it is extremely spotty. If I were to describe the plot, it would sound like I were making it up based on Austen stereotypes. Like, there’s a smart and tart-tongued young woman … she goes into Society … rich men court her … some are boring stiffs, and some are cads, and there’s some guy she falls for, but really, it’s all about class more than love. But I never read Pride and Prejudice or any other novels that are considered classics and “gateways” for a lot of people into actual romance novels. I did learn a lot about them by listening to Thirst Aid Kit.
Ducharme: What did you expect from The Duke and I?
Maxon: I knew it was about old-timey Britain, and I knew there was some sexy man at the center of it, since I have become aware of the heartthrob on the Netflix show by hearts throbbing all over Slate Slack about him. So I guess I expected it to be fun and silly, and I expected there to be a lot of sex, much of it comically written. I had few expectations in terms of plot and story. I did expect the writing to be bad, I will confess. What did you expect?
Ducharme: I watched the whole Netflix series with my mom over the holidays. (Yes, even those bananas sex scenes, including the one where Daphne gets eaten out on stone stairs! Stone!) I thought it was silly and sort of fun, but I did not get any pleasure out of the will they–won’t they plot with Daphne and the Duke. Though the Duke was extremely hot. I think I expected the book to make Daphne slightly more interesting as a narrator, and I expected the writing to be extremely bad. (She wasn’t, and it was.)
Maxon: That is amazing about the stone stairs scene. I haven’t seen the show at all, but that does sound uncomfortable. The novel, though, would have us believe that passion has its demands, and all we can do at times is yield, even on stone stairs. I have to agree that a lot of the sentences were very bad—but not unreadable. There is a lot of repetition to make sure the reader doesn’t miss or forget the most important things. Like, how many times did they remind us that anger most incited the Duke’s stutter?
I feel a bit like a stiff old prig myself even bringing this all up, but there’s one more thing that bugged me, which is how many times the word rake or rakish was used. Some pages literally had, like, five rakes. I did a control-F in my Kindle app when I finished, and I found that there were a total of 31 rakes or rakishes, which is actually fewer than I thought. (Maybe if you included all the Bridgerton books the total would begin to approach all the murmurs in Twilight.) Were there any specific style or writing things that bugged you?
Ducharme: I also noticed rake over and over again. It kept reminding me of that classic Jeopardy! moment, which is the only reason I already knew the definition of a rake.
I know ejaculation is crucial to the central conflict in this book—here’s where I simply must plug Ashley Ray’s hilarious piece on this—but the continued use of the word explode/explosion/exploded to describe the Duke’s cum was … a choice.
Maxon: LOL. I think the goal in the sex scenes was to maximize a visceral feeling in both the Duke and Daphne, and therefore the reader, and they definitely went for it. The amount of moaning and “mewling” Daphne did was also quite a lot. I mean, I’m sure Simon is hot and, um, talented, but come on.
Did you think any of the sex scenes were too … aggressive? Like, on either end. Obviously, there’s a consent issue when Daphne sexes Simon while he’s drunk. But Simon is described as incredibly forceful—though of course Daphne is moaning through it all.
Ducharme: Huh! I didn’t. But mostly because I expected all romance novel sex to be deeeeeeeply passionate, and the only way to make that passion impossible to misconstrue is if they are really forceful. But for me, that ultimately made the sex scenes boring. Very little about what they did or said surprised me. Well, except for the drunk Simon scene, which is more disturbing than it is surprising, I guess.
Another thing that was strange was the slightly flirty dynamic between Daphne and her brothers? Maybe I’m just a pervert, but they seemed to be constantly teasing one another about her romantic and sexual prospects.
Maxon: That didn’t occur to me, but I see what you mean. What did occur to me, though, was intense homoeroticism between Anthony and Simon. Anthony was jealous!
Ducharme: Oh man, I wish I was reading that book.
Maxon: There must be Anthony-Simon slash fic out there.
Ducharme: Back to quirks of this book though, what did you think of the Lady Whistledown papers?
Maxon: You know, they were fine. I dorkily must admit that the speed with which it became an instant success and read by everybody at the beginning made me think about how quickly a paper can build an audience. They said it was the hottest thing in town within two weeks! Without the internet! Seems extremely fast, but who knows? Gossip about rich folks’ love lives is always a good sell, and Lady Whistledown was well-sourced. But mostly I kept expecting there to be a reveal at the end that Lady Whistledown was Violet, Daphne’s mom, and then, unless I’m an idiot and missed that it was in fact Daphne—which they sort of hinted at?—there was no reveal.
Ducharme: I had fun reading them in Julie Andrews’ voice (she’s the Kristen Bell of the Bridgerton TV series). But I found the contents to be actually rather dry. They could’ve been much meaner! Maybe the problem was that I was expecting Page Six gossip from something more like the New York Times style section. Whistledown’s identity remains a mystery even by the end of the book, though the TV series shares her identity right at the end of Season 1. Gossip Girl, this show is not.
Maxon: What about the main characters? You said Daphne was boring, and I have to agree. I get that sex ed was not really a thing, but how can someone be so ignorant of sex in a house with so many siblings when she’s right in the middle? My friends from big families always say that they knew everything very early.
Ducharme I think Daphne is a lot like Twilight’s Bella in the sense that she’s so flat that any woman reading it can project herself onto her. Daphne is but a vehicle for you to imagine getting railed by the cantankerously sexy Duke. That being said, I do think it’s interesting how common the “I don’t know about sex!” plot point is. Personally, I think Spring Awakening (both the original German play and the 2000s rock musical) does it way better.
I also think my judgment of Simon is clouded by how unbelievably hot Regé-Jean Page is, so I’ll have to recuse myself from making any assessments on his character in the book.
Maxon: Both Simon and Daphne are these archetypes, right? I think men imagine a person like Simon—scarred by shitty father, able to beat up anybody, a “rake” who will never settle down, able to have complete control over himself, and able to make his woman mewl constantly while in bed—when they imagine the prototypical alpha male, too. It might be too far to say that men dream of being like Simon, but I think a lot of (straight) men do think that’s still the type of ideal man that they’re expected to be, or the type of man that women are most attracted to. (Punching people, by the way, happens surprisingly casually a number of times.) More than anything he reminded me of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, but as written in a novel that Gaston would write about himself.
I will say there’s one thing I think the book did pretty darn well that surprised me, which is how scarred Simon is by his dad’s rejection. I found some of the confrontations between them toward the beginning effectively tense, and I thought the moment of catharsis at the end, when he finally talks it through with Daphne in Hyde Park, was effective. That part of their romance—that Daphne would be the one to help him overcome this resentment—was believable enough to me. (It could be said that this is yet another drama that could have been avoided by a Man Goes to Therapy, but at least in 1813 England, we know there was no such thing.)
The romance writers guild defines a romance novel as having central characters who fall in love and struggle to make it work and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, so by that definition, in my opinion, The Duke and I succeeds. Like, it’s easy to imagine darker endings to the story, but as a reader I bought this ending, and it does what the book exists to do. It gives readers what they want, right? Was there anything in the book that worked well for you?
Ducharme: I’m glad you asked because I imagine we’ll have some romance fans walking away from this article thinking that we’ve been real jerks about their genre. I would say that it was significantly better than what I expected from the worst of those romance novel covers. I’m also glad you mentioned the Duke’s dynamic with his father because the portions of the book that worked for me were also related to family. I enjoyed sitting in the Bridgerton family’s little world, especially when all the siblings were at one another’s throats over something silly and meaningless. The Duke’s extremely sweet relationship with Daphne’s youngest sister, Hyacinth, was particularly charming. That aspect of The Duke and I helped me understand that readers approach these books for the hotties, of course, but also for the tender, more intimate depictions of family. Even with his childhood abuse, Simon is still rather emotionally available to the larger Bridgerton clan. And what’s sexier than being so well-adjusted?
Do you think you would read another Bridgerton book? (Maybe for that sweet, sweet Anthony x Simon flirtation.) Or another romance novel in general?
Maxon: If there is Anthony-Simon fan fic out there, I do have to know about it, but I don’t think I’ll read another Bridgerton book, if only because life is short and there are too many books, and because I’ll just watch the show instead. However, I’m realizing that the closest thing to a romance novel I read before this was probably Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, which provided forbidden romance and sex scenes but better sentences and characters. So reading Bridgerton did make me think that I should finally read Normal People, which I know is even more romance-y, if not genre romance. How about you?
Ducharme: You know, life IS too short and there sincerely ARE too many books. I don’t think I’ll read another Bridgerton book, but I will take any recommendations for LGBTQ romances (preferably not set in the Regency era though). Before I read The Duke and I this weekend, I watched Zendaya’s new film, Malcolm & Marie. The time I spent doing both of these things ultimately felt more like the beginning of my syllabus for a class on critical heterosexuality studies. If these two cultural products are any indicators of the state of heterosexuality, the straights are doomed.
Maxon: I, too, am praying for me, praying for all us straights. I genuinely appreciate your scholarship, and your concern.