Deep down romance novels are stories about emotion, and sometimes those stores run up against our own lived experience. How we read those books can vary. Some readers avoid them while others seek out books in which they can see themselves. I do a bit of both, and when I encounter my own life reflected in the book I then nitpick it to death, I DNF it in a heartbeat, and my whole experience of reading is affected.
The Reluctant Duchess by Jane Goodger is a tale of a young duke named Oliver who lives shut off from the world with a distant relative serving as both his guardian and guard. When he sees a painting of a beautiful woman he sends this guardian, Mr. Winters, to find her and marry her by proxy. Rebecca, our heroine, is dismayed to learn that her father, a gambling addict, has promised her hand to the Duke sight unseen. She learns that he is called the Ghost Duke and the people in the countryside surrounding his isolated manor believe that they will be cursed or turned into stone if they look at him. At first she sees him only in the dark. However, in the darkness he is kind and gentle and they fall in love. When she finally sees his face she immediately recognizes him as an albino (note: some people with albinism consider the word albino to be a slur, while others do not, when in doubt, ask). Oliver has been raised by Mr. Winters since he was six years old and he had never been told that he was not unique in the world. His mother abandoned him at birth upon seeing his condition, and his loving father died suddenly when he was too young to understand his condition. Together Oliver and Rebecca go on a journey to break free of his isolation and become the Duke his father raised him to be.
I’m writing about this book because it is personal to me. Two years ago I had a beautiful baby boy, he had the blondest hair they hospital nurses had ever seen and he was perfect. Over the next few months we began to notice that things were a bit different, his eyes never seemed to focus and they constantly scanned the room. He didn’t find his feet, and he didn’t try and sit up to play. The pediatrician sent us to an ophthalmologist two hours away and we learned that our baby boy had albinism. At that moment my world changed. Our baby didn’t change, but I knew that the world wouldn’t see him the same. That’s the day I really became an advocate for my child. Since then we’ve come a long way. Most people don’t even realize that he has albinism, they just see a very blonde child in glasses. As he grows up his condition will become more obvious, and he, like Oliver, will likely have to face stares and rude comments. Unlike Oliver, he will never be alone in the world.
While Jane Goodger got many aspects of life with albinism right, I did have issues with the way she depicted his birth, and the immediate recognition of his “unnatural color.” I admit, I nearly put the book down for good at that point. It was one of those moments where I was too close to the conflict. It broke my heart to read about his isolation and how he had been led to believe he was a monster. I couldn’t help but imagine my own son being rejected in the same way. Oliver could have easily been written as angry and bitter, and he does experience some justified anger towards the people who have forced and manipulated him into his isolated life, but his character is ultimately defined by a core goodness. He is sweet and kind and he initially hides his appearance out of a fear that Rebecca will reject him as he has been rejected before. Oliver is a hero who thinks the best of everyone but himself.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this book and the rare opportunity to “see” someone who looks like my son cast as the hero of the story. More than that I loved the shy and gentle hero and the sharp witted and brave heroine. Their little jokes together warmed my heart and really showed their bond. If nothing else this book is worth reading for the sweetness between them. I loved that the hero’s albinism wasn’t the only source of internal and external conflict which is reflective of how people live with albinism every day. They have albinism, but they are not defined by their condition.