Fans of Sally MacKenzie’s Widow’s Brew series have been waiting for this moment. Jo, the widowed Lady Havenridge, has appeared in the series' previous two books as a woman who seemed to have it all figured out. The founder and leader of the Benevolent Home for the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, and Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children, she has established not only a sanctuary for women and girls with nowhere else to go, but also a thriving business as the women operate their own brewery. She has work, purpose, a home and a community, but now it’s finally time for her to find love. And perhaps it’s a testament to how rare and special her situation is that love and matrimony—the longed-for prize of every young miss in Regency society—holds little appeal for her. She doesn’t actually say that she needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, but the implication is there.
However, in Cheers to the Duke, the right man is quite forcefully ushered in. Edward, the Duke of Grainger, is a solicitor from an obscure branch of the family tree who unexpectedly inherited the title (think Matthew Crawley from "Downton Abbey"). The search for a bride, someone to step into the shoes of his dearly loved first wife as Edward’s partner and mother to his young, sensitive son, has not gone well. Thrust into society’s so-called graces, he is fawned over by empty-headed debutantes with hungry eyes on his title even as they turn up their noses at his common origins. But then he’s brought together with Jo at the christening of Viscount Hurley, their mutual godchild. And by “brought together,” I mean “all but locked into a closet together by their friends who’ve decided they’re perfect for each other.” Edward is quick to agree that Jo is just what he needs—in his home, his heart and his bed. (His son, Thomas, is instantly on board as well, and in one of the sweeter moments in the story, actually proposes that Jo become his mother even before Jo and Edward officially meet.) Jo, on the other hand, is harder to convince.
In a genre as well-trod as Regency romance, there's much pleasure to be found in stories that subvert expectations, and this story (this series!) definitely accomplishes that. Rather than a society-defying rake who is tamed by love, MacKenzie features capable heroines who defy social norms and require heavy persuasion before they’ll give in to the virtues of wedded life and love. There’s no villain in the story, no rigidly disapproving family member interfering with the course of true love, no moustache-twirling scoundrel attempting to compromise or disgrace the heroine. The only roughness in the course of true love comes from the fact that Jo genuinely needs convincing that marriage is something she’d ever want, even with the perfect man. Her independence is both admirable and refreshing. The response of the other characters to that independence is . . . a bit less endearing. Like Bridget Jones, I’m not often a fan of “smug marrieds” who are convinced that no one can be both happy and single, and the other guests at the christening celebration lean a little far into that mindset. There could have been a bit less well-intentioned matchmaking, and a bit more genuine respect for Jo’s choices (there were a few too many conversations where she got steamrolled).
Still, the energy of the story is infectious, evoking the feeling of a family reunion where everyone’s truly glad to see one another. For those hoping for a happy conclusion to these characters and their adventures in brewing, the final Widow's Brew novel delivers love, laughter and libations.