American Duchess by Karen Harper

American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt provides a rich inspiration for this fictionalized novel of her life beginning in the 1890s.  In American Duchess, Consuelo, a member of the privileged Vanderbilt family, is engaged and married, against her will, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.  Overruled by her dominating and controlling mother Alva, she is merely a pawn in Alva’s desire for an even higher social status as well as the Duke’s need to preserve his family’s estate and financial well-being.

We first meet Consuelo on her wedding day to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895.  She is in tears as she is about to marry not the man she loves, but the man her mother has chosen for her.  With her sense of duty to her family’s legacy, she carries on and enters the church to marry the Duke.  It is only after her marriage that we learn that she was actually in love with a man who her parents did not approve of as a suitable match for their daughter.  Alva has her sights set on matching her daughter with British royalty and does everything in her power to play matchmaker.  Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke’s family, is in need of money to maintain the estate and who better to supply the money than the Vanderbilt family with a bride for the Duke?

After the wedding, Consuelo, now the Duchess of Marlborough, attempts to find her place, helping the less fortunate in the surrounding areas and learning more about her new role as head of the household.  Throughout her time at Blenheim Palace, a close ally emerges in her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill, and the two share a close friendship.  As time passes, the relationship between she and the Duke grows more and more strained to a breaking point.  Consuelo finds the strength to eventually follow her heart and make difficult, but necessary decisions.

This novel is a fictionalized account of a fascinating, yet little known historical figure whose life did not start the way she had envisioned.  Throughout her life she  gathered the strength and courage to live her life on her own terms.  Many believe that Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is the first American born Duchess but it turns out that over 100 years ago, England welcomed an American Duchess, Consuelo Vanderbilt.  This novel gives the reader a good sense of the challenges she faced in her new country.

That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

If you could read a book and get a glimpse into another society, would you? By reading fiction books, I will often find a topic that intrigues me that will then push me to read a nonfiction book about the same topic. It’s an enjoyable cycle! Historical fiction is one of the biggest genres that leads me to nonfiction books. I love fact-checking the fiction book to see how closely the author wrote to what happened in real life. Historical fiction that focuses on remarkable women is one of my favorites. Stephanie Barron’s latest works falls under this category.

That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron chronicles the life of one of history’s most remarkable, controversial, and influential women: Winston Churchill’s scandalous American mother, Jennie Jerome. Jennie was born in Brooklyn to a prosperous American financier father and a mother with high social ambitions for both herself and her daughters. Eventually ending up in Europe with her mother and siblings after a scandal rocked her parents, Jennie realizes that she is responsible for securing her own destiny. Jennie is wealthy, privileged, and raised by her father to be fiercely independent. The moment she landed in Victorian England, Jennie and her family took the area by storm.

Jennie runs into Lord Randolph Churchill at a party and decides she wants to marry him when she is just nineteen years old. The shocker? They have only known each other for three days when Jennie decides to marry him. Once they are married, she is instantly swept into a crazy whirlwind of British politics and the social climbers that surround Bertie, Prince of Wales. Jennie is now the new Lady Randolph Churchill, a brash American woman who thinks for herself and is careless of English society rules. She becomes a London sensation, traveling without her husband to Marlborough House and gathering admirers and critics along the way. Since Jennie knows about politics and is also a gifted piano player, she uses her talents to begin shaping her husband’s rise in Parliament. Jennie is also widely known as the mother of Winston Churchill. She uses her talents to help navigate Winston’s journey into manhood. He had a difficult childhood, but Jennie made sure to be at his side.

As the Churchill family becomes more influential, scandal and tragedy begin to strike them. Jennie has had lovers besides her husband, but none mean as much to her as Count Charles Kinsky. Kinsky is a man who loves horses like she does  and passionately loves Jennie the way her husband can’t. Once Bertie, Prince of Wales, catches wind of their affair, Jennie is forced to rethink their love as she quickly realizes just how much her every move is judged in public. She must decide how to balance duty and desire, a choice which has consequences that ripple across the Atlantic. Jennie’s decision takes her to a new level of scandal as her children’s lives and all of those around her are greatly affected. This novel is a loving portrait of a woman who helped shape the Churchill era. Jennie’s legacy may be of a difficult and scandalous woman, but the balancing act she works out between obligation, desire, duty, love, and freedom is a testament to the soul of a woman who through sheer force of will was able to alter the course of history.

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale

Don’t judge this wonderful book by its covers, which are egregious. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is, by a wide margin, the most intelligent and engaging romance I’ve ever read. It proves what romance readers have known for generations: a love story with a happy ending can be just as powerful and thoughtful as any other literary novel. The heroine, Maddy Timms, is a devout Quaker: she speaks in a thee-thou manner that other characters remark upon as often you inevitably will. It’s infuriating, it’s different, it’s overly pious and hard to understand. It marks Maddy as a person who lives apart, in a smaller and humbler world than her Anglican peers. Her religion is restrictive and judgmental, but it’s also warm and forgiving and kind – just like Maddy herself. Christian Langland is a standard romantic hero (a strapping, handsome, fabulously wealthy Duke who happens to be a well-known rake), until a neurological illness strikes out of nowhere, shattering his ability to communicate. Only Maddy recognizes that he is not incompetent, an idiot, a savage struck down by God for his immoral ways: he is a sick man. And she is led by God to restore him to health.

There are layers upon layers in this book. Christian is mad; Maddy is a Christian. Flowers and storms pop up in significant junctures throughout the story, bolstering the plot as well as reminding you of the central theme: there is always a way to find something beautiful, something wonderful, even in the darkest and most harrowing times. The point of view alternates between Christian and Maddy, and Ms. Kinsale does an absolutely phenomenal job of illustrating Christian’s rapid mental decline and slow recovery both from inside and outside his fuddled mind. She very rarely writes the same moment from both characters’ perspectives, so you only know what Christian can piece together or what Maddy has been present to see. The scenes inside the lunatic asylum in the immediate aftermath of Christian’s illness are heartwrenching, as we watch him struggle to make even the simplest thought understood by his doctors. Maddy is the first and only person to truly understand him, to know that his intelligence is as fierce as ever but his ability to speak and to understand has been compromised. As their love blossoms, Maddy struggles with her religious convictions and Christian struggles with his illness, his family, and his legal obligations. I’ve never been moved to root for a romance novel couple as I was for these two.

If you’re a romance reader and you’ve never read Flowers from the Storm, do so right away! You won’t regret it. Then, pass it on to a skeptical friend who thinks romances are cheap, tawdry, worthless, or sub-literary: I’ve never read a book more likely to change their mind.