My American Duchess wasn't Eloisa James' best, but an average Eloisa James is still an above-average book.
American heiress Merry Pelford has been brought to London to find a husband, since her two previous broken engagements have limited her chances in Boston. When Lord Cedric Allardyce proposes, she initially thinks that he's everything she could want in a husband, but quickly comes to realise that that she may have made another mistake, especially since it's his brother, the Duke of Trent, who really interests her. But to break another engagement would bring down even more scandal on herself, and even if she did, it's unlikely that Trent would want a ruined American who doesn't understand the intricacies of Ton etiquette as his Duchess.
This was a book of two halves, each of which had elements that were classic Eloisa James. The first half, where Merry is engaged to the hero's brother, offers the conflicted lusting that James always does so well, while the second half capitalises on the emotions of their marriage, which they initially both consider to be stronger if they don't fall in love. Merry's realisation that she is in love with her husband and the renegotiation of their marriage that follows was gut-wrenching in the same way that we've seen with other already-married couples of James'.
However, each half also had some things that didn't quite work. While the chemistry between Trent and Merry was strong throughout, the first half featured a lot of pining and not much action, while the early second half had - God help me, I never thought I'd say this - a lot of sex and not much else. Then there's a big emotional disconnect and the moment of darkness that makes the hero realise he loves the heroine. The end.
And the transition from engaged-to-the-spare to married-to-the-Duke. Man, I do not even know what to say about that transition. For a start, it made absolutely no sense until the epilogue, and even then I remain sceptical about Cedric's redemption. Secondly, having this part in Merry's perspective, when Trent is the one out there arranging things so that he can marry Merry instead of his brother - which nobody tells her about until after the ceremony, by the way, so be prepared for that removal of agency - means that it comes as a massive Deus ex Machina moment. One minute, Merry's being blackmailed into marrying Cedric, the next minute - ta-da - she's actually married Trent and Cedric's left the country. Cue second half about married life.
Despite the narrative issues, James has retained her ability to tug at the old heartstrings, and that's the reason I can't give this a lower rating than I have. Merry's out of place, first as an American debutante, and then as an American duchess, and there is a lot of poignancy in watching her trying to remake herself into the duchess that she think Trent wants after he rejects her love. Trent doesn't put much stock in romantic love, especially since Merry has already declared herself in love with her previous three fiances, and it's only slowly that he starts to realise the effects of basically telling his wife that she's fickle, a slut for emotional instead of physical intimacy. Her is also dealing with the legacy of his mother's favoritism towards Cedric, which has strained the brothers' relationship, and his father drunkenness, which caused his parents' death in a carriage accident. There's a lot of pathos in this backstory, but it's not used heavy-handedly to make him a tortured hero.
If My American Duchess had been by a new-to-me author and I'd picked it up, I probably would have been satisfied. But Eloisa James is an auto-buy for me, because I can always rely on her to put forward the perfect escape read, and this wasn't up to that usual standard.