As Duchess of Nothing opens, the "Duchess" of the title is living in an apartment in Rome with her lover, Edmund, and Edmund's seven-year-old brother. She spends most of her time drifting languidly in a type of existential anguish, talking to Edmund's younger brother, promising to unconventionally educate him and perhaps show him around the
Her ambiguous relationship with Edmund – a less than intelligent artist - is self-evident; at one stage, she even contemplates leaving him. However, it is Edmund
who eventually departs, ostensibly telling her that he is off to visit his mother.
Left to her own devices and with enough money to last a few weeks, it soon becomes clear she is not the best guardian.
She feeds the boy by boiling bowls of milk in the morning and "mushy brown things that soak up lots of sources" at night.
In one instance, she even gives him scotch to dull the pain from a splinter.
As long as she is responsible for Edmund's brother's education, the boy will know the truth about things, however dark the truth may be. Her life once held such promise - she formerly worked as a bank-teller, where one spring day her husband walked into the bank and withdrew her - just like the cash – to a compound on a distant hill where he methodically began to drive her mad. She tells Edmund's brother that "he married me and I began to decompose."
As this strange, enigmatic woman who remains unnamed steadily reviews her life and the events that have bought her to a ramshackle piazza in Rome, the author begins to paint a compelling portrait of a sad, bitter, emotionally needy woman who is constantly living on the edge. Although she feigns control, it is actually Edmund's brother who is the more sensible, insisting they spend their remaining money on milk and bread when wants to splurge on a glamorous hat. She is indeed the "duchess of nothing," unattached to anything, constantly lecturing her young protégé about the perils of love, life and the universe, To him, she often comes across as an "ugly yellow soul," to her; he's a short man in boys' sandals, "a comrade in the deliberation of our journey together in life."
Duchess of Nothing is a difficult and complex book. The endless stream-of consciousness narrative is intense with this expressive and dark interior confessional often coming across as a strange mixture of the funny and sorrowful. The prose is fluid and lyrical, with McGowan framing her themes of loneness and isolation with a delicate touch and deft precision.
Our narrator is stuck in a cynical and distrustful world, constantly belittling herself and lamenting that she might never recapture the glory of the young girl of her bank days. She also guards herself "against betrayal, against beauty and against love."
It is as though she is mired in a type of proto-feminist angst with only a seven-year-old boy for company. It quickly becomes clear that life has dealt this duchess some hard knocks and she's having difficulty rising about it all.
It has been a fractured and lonely life where many of her choices have unfortunately never really belonged to her.
In the end, her attempts to muddle through the world, intent on dragging Edmund's brother behind her, are funny, outrageous, sorrowful, and in the end, quite pathetic, bitter and sad.