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An attainable goddess?

Cover of Aphrodite and the Duke
A review of Aphrodite and the Duke by J. J. McAvoy

Aphrodite Du Bell hates her name. The eponymous heroine of J. J. McAvoy’s romance Aphrodite and the Duke certainly has the beauty and bearing reminiscent of the Greek goddess, but ever since she was jilted by Evander Eagleman, Duke of Everely, she’s been reluctant to reenter society. An ultimatum from her formidable mama means she must find a husband this year, but the discovery that the now-widowed Evander will be present this season gives Aphrodite a sliver of hope she might be able to rekindle the love she knows Evander genuinely held for her. But his mixed signals and pressure from her loving, but opinionated family, leaves her considering a stable, but unloving, future. On Evander’s part, he wishes desperately to take Aphrodite as his wife but the trauma of his past refuses to be laid to rest, with the very real possibility that anyone close to Evander could face the same level of abuse he endured—or worse.

This being a romance, there will be a HEA (happy ever after), but McAvoy’s work is unconventional in both good and bad ways from the typical regency-era comedy of manners. There’s a strong sense of similarity to Netflix’s recent Bridgerton, not least in the fact that McAvoy’s England is blind to race (both Aphrodite and Evander are biracial). Like the show, Aphrodite can rely on her large, lively family; the hero struggles to overcome a traumatic childhood, and interference from scheming mamas for good or ill. The first half of the book is strongest, as Aphrodite and Evander find their way to each other and the supporting characters hold stronger roles. However, the second half of the book takes an odd turn into more adventurous territory, lessening the tension over the romance and shifting it into a subplot about illegitimacy and fortune hunting. What could be a promising thread—few if any historical romances question the existence of the aristocracy in Britain—but McAvoy’s focus on somewhat flat villains and odd pacing kills a promising storyline shortly after it is started.

It appears that Aphrodite and the Duke is McAvoy’s first foray into historical romance (she has a number of contemporary romances to her name), so some unevenness is forgivable. There’s also a lot of backstory to work through which compacts the central romance; presumably future installments can give more space to the relationships that are the point of romance. The portraits of the Du Bell and Eagleman families are the strongest aspect of Aphrodite, with McAvoy showing a lot of strength and humor in her ensemble writing. Happily, more time with the Du Bells and Eaglemans appears to be on the horizon: Verity and the Forbidden Suitor, featuring Evander’s sister Verity, is slated for release in April. 

Feb 1, 2023