Cora Cash is fantastically rich, one of the very richest Newport heiresses, but her family's money is so newly minted that she is still not considered an appropriate match for Teddy Van Der Leyden whose money may not equal the Cash fortune but whose pedigree elevates him beyond her. Although Cora's trip to Europe to find a titled husband is already planned, she is hopeful that she and Teddy may still defy convention. After all, she very nearly always gets what she wants, unless it conflicts with what her manipulative mother wants. After a near tragedy, Cora and her mother proceed to England to snare Cora a titled husband just as her mother's plan always assumed. They hire a woman to get them into the drawing rooms of the right people and end up at a house party where Cora goes out for a ride, is thrown from her stallion, and finds herself recovering in the neighboring Duke of Wareham's home. A more perfect situation Cora's own mother couldn't have envisioned.
And so Cora becomes the Duchess of Wareham and is plunged into a society with undercurrents and conventions that are as foreign to her as they can possibly be. Spoiled though she is, she is in love with her new husband and wants nothing more than to please him. But her lack of familiarity with Ivo's world and the expectations that are a part and parcel of it cause her make misstep after misstep with her moody and aloof husband and to befriend people who are not interested in mentoring her but in crushing her. Both Cora and Ivo's pasts threaten to overwhelm their current lives and could dictate the future just as completely. As Cora learns to navigate the hidden shoals in her British life, she has to mature from the lovely but spoiled heiress she was at eighteen into a woman who chooses her own future.
This well written, superbly researched novel is a window into the late nineteenth century American invasion of Britain. Cora and Ivo, who start off as rather stereotypical, develop into multi-dimensional and realistic characters. The secondary characters are definitely more one dimesional in their roles but their very presence moves the plot along at a good clip. The reader sees all the pitfalls Cora faces and wants to warn her about her mistakes as she's a likable and sympathetic character. In addition to the cultural differences between the US and England, there's also the theme of class and race weaving through the novel just beneath the surface, best highlighted through the relationship between Bertha, Cora's black lady's maid, and one of the footmen at Lulworth, the Duke of Wareham's ancestral home. A confection of a novel, this was a quick and engaging read that seems like a guilty pleasure on the surface but certainly gave my book club enough to talk about to sustain an evening's discussion.