A ray of light in the darkest timeline we're currently in
Reviewed in the United States on 23 September 2020
This was an ARC sent to me by the author. I had already pre-ordered the book, and the free copy has not influenced my review in any way.
Chloe Fong is seen as strict, stern, intimidating, and demanding by everyone in the little village of Wedgeford Downs, where she lives with her father. Chloe's mother died when she was a baby, and Chloe's father was taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen, who have now gotten rich because of the sauce he developed for them. Chloe wants to help her father perfect his new sauce, launch a rival sauce production company and eventually achieve revenge over the men who left her father to fend for himself once he had used his culinary skills to their advantage. Her father is just as much of a perfectionist as she is, and loathe to accept help from anyone, least alone the child he promised her mother he would provide for and keep safe.
The only man who ever seemed to show any romantic interest in Chloe was Jeremy Yu, also affectionately known in Wedgeford Downs as "Posh Jim". For nine years, he would come to visit during the big festival, charming everyone in general and Chloe in particular. However, once she asked him to go away until he could be serious, he disappeared, and for the last two years, despite Chloe trying to pretend that she doesn't miss him, he has stayed away. Now, when Chloe is facing possibly the most challenging weekend of her life, when the decades-long plans of her father and her may come to fruition (she just needs to figure out a name for the sauce first), he suddenly shows up again, and asks Chloe to make him a list. A list to help him find a wife...
The man known as Jeremy Yu or "Posh Jim" in Wedgeford Downs has several secrets. The fact that he is absolutely besotted with Miss Chloe Fong isn't really a secret to anyone who has ever seen them together, except to Chloe herself. No, his biggest secret is that he is, in actuality, Jeremy Wentworth, the Duke of Lansing, he owns the village of Wedgeford Downs, and everyone who lives there probably owes him about forty years worth of back rent. Jeremy was only a teenager the first time he came to Wedgeford during their famous Trials festival, and he was warmly accepted by everyone there and felt a sense of belonging he hasn't felt anywhere else, so he couldn't very well confess his true identity then. And with each passing year, confessing the truth became harder and harder.
Now Jeremy's aunt wants him to settle down and find a wife, and for him, there is only one candidate. He went away to try to be serious for Chloe, but can't seem to stop making jokes and looking for the positive in every situation. Jeremy knows he will need to tell her the truth about himself and his title before he proposes, but he is also aware that asking Chloe to become a Duchess is no easy thing. His mother hated the way she was treated by British high society and went back to China as soon as she could after his father's death. Nevertheless, if he must marry, Chloe is the only one he could imagine spending his life with. In order to get to spend as much time with her as possible, he promises her ten pounds if she'll write him a list with all of her qualities, as the only woman he'd consider marrying needs to have ALL of her qualities. He also insists on helping her and her father with their many tasks in preparing for the festival and the launch of their (hopefully soon to be famous) sauce.
It's been a year and a half since Courtney Milan published anything at all, and two and a half years since she published a full-length novel. If you follow Ms. Milan on Twitter and other social media, or have read anything online about the complete implosion of the RWA (Romance Writers of America) over the last few years, you can see that she hasn't exactly had the best of times. While she was never tested, it also seems very likely that she had Covid-19 and was pretty seriously ill earlier this year. So the fact that she's written this new historical novel, which does not fit into her ongoing historical Worth Saga, nor her contemporary Cyclone series, was a wonderful surprise. As soon as the pre-order links were available, I rushed to make sure I'd have my copy on release day. It was therefore a wonderful surprise to open my e-mail about three weeks ago and discover an e-mail with an ARC of this book - I had completely forgotten that I had qualified to be on Ms. Milan's ARC mailing list.
I devoured the book in less than 24 hours. The book made me laugh out loud more than once because Ms. Milan is very funny when she wants to be. Moreover, reading this book filled me with a satisfying warmth, like being wrapped in a cozy blanket or given a really good hug (something I think many of us are starved of at present). It's such a ray of golden light in these dark times, the entire narrative is focused on finding, recognising, and seizing your happiness with both hands, and it felt like a balm.
I love pretty much everything about this book. I love how effortlessly sweet it is, how full of warmth and joy it is. I love that Ms. Milan imagined this tiny village in Kent filled mostly with immigrants from all over the world, making up a vibrant and diverse community. I love Chloe and Jeremy as protagonists, I love the supporting characters, especially Chloe's gruff father, who shows his deep affection for her by constantly nagging her to eat. He's not necessarily happy about Jeremy's interest in her, and he certainly doesn't like that he's keeping secrets. He keeps torturing Jeremy with excessive amounts of chili added to his food until the young man comes clean about the things he's been hiding from Chloe, and Jeremy, knowing that he deserves it, dutifully eats the fiery food and suffers in silence.
I loved how determined, loyal and strong Chloe is and how Jeremy loves her exactly the way she is, not threatened or put off by her ambition and independence. I love that Ms. Milan gave us a half-Chinese duke, which may not be entirely historically accurate, but is no less implausible than the scores of dukes, viscounts and earls that already make up historical Romancelandia. I loved learning more about the Hakka people of China and as with Jackie Lau's contemporary romances, that frequently feature a lot of descriptions of food, reading about all the things that Chloe's father cooked made my mouth water.
My only initial complaint when finishing this book was that it was possibly too free of conflict and effortlessly happy. Ms. Milan has said that she specifically set out to subvert the tradition that there needs to be some big third act complication, which frequently requires angst and emotional turmoil for the protagonists to work through. There are no big misunderstandings here, this book is decidedly anti-angst, and yes, maybe the path to true love actually does run too smooth here. Having thought about it for these last three weeks, I've come to the conclusion that I was wrong, and this book just being one long escapist fantasy isn't a flaw, it's a gift. This is exactly the sort of story we need right now and I'm so glad that I was able to read it a few weeks early. I sincerely hope Ms. Milan felt as happy writing the book as I did reading it.
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