Posts Tagged Eloisa James

Romance Saturday — Fine and Funny, “The Lady Most Willing . . . ” Does Not Disappoint

It’s Saturday, so longtime readers of Shiny Book Review know what that means — what could be a better time for a romance?

Today’s selection is the three-part novel THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . (yes, complete with an ellipsis) by novelists Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway.  The novel starts off with four young women of marriageable age being kidnapped while at a ball by an overeager, drunken Scottish Laird named Taran Ferguson, who wants each of his two heirs — cousins Byron, the Earl of Oakley, and Robert “Robin” Parles, the Comte de Rocheforte — to pick one of these women and marry her.   Unfortunately, Ferguson’s men also carry off the Duke of Bretton by the simple expedient of stealing Bretton’s carriage while the Duke himself happened to be sleeping inside it, which means that there will be competition for at least one of the women once they all get to Taran’s deserted Scottish castle.

The four women who’ve been stolen are two Scottish heiresses, Marilla and Fiona Chisholm, an English heiress, Lady Cecily Tarleton (kidnapped at her own ball, no less), and one young lady without any fortune at all, Catriona Burns.  Marilla and Fiona are half-sisters who each have a sizable dowry, while Cecily and Catriona are only children.  Because each one of these women has either a fortune or very doting father behind her, it is a certainty that Taran’s heirs will only have a very short period of time in which to win their intended brides.

Obviously, the abduction is nothing but an author’s convenience.  Taran is a bumbling idiot, while his men mostly go along with him to shut him up so they can go back home and drowse for a few days by the fire as it is nearly Christmas.  And, of course, there’s a very convenient snowstorm that’s going to cut off the party from everyone else.  Which is why it’s clear from the get-go that this particular novel is a farce — and quite a good one, at that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, the first third of THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is about the Duke of Bretton and Catriona Burns.  The Duke is lonely, restless, and really upset about being abducted while inside his own carriage, so he isn’t exactly in the mood for a romance.  Yet Catriona can’t help but charm him; she’s down to earth, friendly, a good sport about everything, and genuinely likes the Duke more and more as she gets to know him.  Catriona believes she’s the type of woman who no one will ever marry as there are younger and prettier women available — or at least women who have much more money than she does, as she has no dowry worth mentioning — which is why she’s able to form a friendship with the Duke nearly immediately.

Besides, the Duke decides very early on that he wants no truck with the sex-crazed Marilla, and needs to make common cause with someone.  Fiona is definitely out — even were she not Marilla’s own half-sister, the Duke would not be inclined to spend time with her because Fiona has a small blemish on her reputation (more on this in a bit).  And while the Duke obviously admires Lady Cecily, if the Duke had been interested in her in the first place, why would the Duke have been asleep in his own carriage while at Cecily’s ball?  So the romance will be with Catriona, whether Catriona knows it or not, and half the fun is figuring out just when Catriona is going to catch on.

The second part of the story is about Fiona and Byron, Earl of Oakley.  Fiona’s reputation took a beating when her then-fiancé fell off a trellis and died while trying to ascend to her bedroom window.  Everyone assumed that Fiona must’ve wanted her fiancé to do this rather remarkably stupid thing (perhaps because no one wants to think ill of the dead), which is why even though nothing whatsoever happened, Fiona is believed to be a “fallen woman.”  Fiona believes she will never marry because of all the stories being told about her, and tries to console herself with the fact that as she’s a woman of means, no one can turn her out into the street.

The reason she takes to Byron is because they both love books and can’t stand to be around Marilla, whose abiding passion mostly seems to be marrying a man with a title — any man will apparently do.  (After the Duke gave Marilla the right-about, Byron as an Earl was the next obvious target.)  And because they’re away from society, some things happen that make it clear to the Earl that Fiona’s reputation has been ruined for no reason whatsoever — so all the Earl has to do is convince Fiona that he really does, indeed, want to marry her.

Again, reading along to figure out just when Fiona’s going to realize that the Earl really does intend to marry her is half the fun.

The third romance — and the third part of the book — is about Lady Cecily’s romance with Robin, a gazetted rake who mostly seems to be known for how many women he’s slept with.  However, Robin’s reputation seems to be a bit overblown; as he says many times, he’s only slept with bored, married women or bored widows, and does not waste his time with innocent maidens like Cecily.  Yet there’s still something about Cecily that intrigues Robin to the point that they have several conversations, which leads them to a further understanding.  This despite the fact that Marilla, once again, tries to horn in on another woman’s happiness as Robin still has a title and she’s all about titles.

So you might be wondering — “Hey, Barb.  There’s four men, and four women.  You’ve told me about everyone save Marilla and Taran.  What’s going on with them?”

Well, in some ways, Marilla’s own story — seen only in fits and starts through the other characters’ eyes — is the most interesting of all.  The only man left to partner Marilla is the fortysomething Taran, whose only claim to fame is his deserted castle and the fact that his men are loyal enough to him that they’re willing to carry off four women on his say-so even when they all obviously find it completely asinine.  And while Taran has a few good points — love of his heirs and loyalty to his men being two — he’s not exactly the man every woman dreams about marrying.

So with the other three, it’s obvious that there’s some mutual regard going on along with sheer lust.  But Marilla seems to be all about lust — or at least, all about titles.  Taran Ferguson is the equivalent of gentry, sure, but she’s not exactly marrying up — in fact, it’s the reverse.

Because most of Marilla’s story is not told, directly or indirectly, it’s not entirely clear why Marilla doesn’t just wait out the snowstorm, pack her bags and go home to her father rather than marrying Taran alongside the other three couples.  While I’m sure that it would look really bad in 19th Century parlance to be abducted and held in a deserted castle for several days, reputation-wise, the fact is that Marilla still has a considerable fortune.  She certainly does not have to marry Taran.

Bottom line?  THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is an excellent comic romance with great laughs, charm, wit, and sensuality to spare despite the fact that two of the three main romances are all but chaste.

Grade: A-minus, mostly because I would’ve liked to see more of Marilla’s story.

— reviewed by Barb

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Eloisa James’ “The Ugly Duchess” — Good Plot, Strange Romance

Long-time romance novelist Eloisa James is known for her humorous romances, many set during the Regency period of the early 19th Century.  Some of her best romances come in sets; for example, the four book set about the Essex sisters (MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU, KISS ME, ANNABEL, THE TAMING OF THE DUKE and PLEASURE FOR PLEASURE) are interlinked, with the same characters showing up again and again as each sister gets married.  And this book, THE UGLY DUCHESS, also is part of a set — alas, not an interlinked set, but one based off various fairy tales.

As you might imagine, THE UGLY DUCHESS is a take-off of the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling.”  It stars Theodora Saxby, unbeautiful heiress, and James Ryburn, the Earl of Islay and heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook.  Theo is a ward of Duke Ashbrook’s and has grown up with James, thinking of him as a brother.

However, the Duke of Ashbrook has run into major money problems, and has gambled away not only his own fortune and his son’s, but part of Theo’s as well (the part he could get his hands on).  For this reason, he insists that James, who’s just turned nineteen, marry seventeen-year-old Theo without delay despite Theo’s lack of beauty.

To James’ credit, he sees Theo (who he insists on calling the childhood nickname of “Daisy” throughout) as a woman of strong character.  Because of this, James sees that Theo is beautiful in her own way, if not necessarily in society’s, and as he’s always been great friends with her, wants to protect her.  This is why he insists that Theo be allowed to make up her own mind with regards to the nuptials — but it’s also why he doesn’t tell Theo right off the bat that the Duke has gambled away everything and then some.

Once Theo realizes that the handsome James wants to marry her, her brotherly feelings for him subside; in come the romantic feelings that she didn’t even know she had.  (This despite the fact that her mother believes something is extremely hasty about the impending nuptials; Theo’s mother has a good nose.)  She kisses him, the stars collide, the world looks dazzlingly bright — really, it’s a Kodachrome moment — and the wedding goes forward.

Theo and James share one deliriously happy night, and James thinks it might work out after all.  However, in comes the blustering Duke to thank James for his “sacrifice” (that is, being willing to marry an ugly woman), and of course Theo hears it all and throws James out.  This prompts James to storm off, leave the country, and ultimately take up a most unexpected career — he becomes a pirate.

Theo, on the other hand, stays home.  She manages to forgive the old Duke before he passes away (of shame, one would hope; the death occurs mostly off-screen); she puts all of her energy and passion into the Ashbrook estate.  Ultimately, she fixes all of the Ashbrook financial problems with a goodly amount of hard work (remember, this is a fairy tale, so Theo being a financial wizard — unbeknownst to her or anyone else at the start of the book — stays right in character with the plot), buries both the Duke and her own mother, and tries to do “the good and the right.”

And they both realize they’re lonely, and of course they miss each other, but do they communicate?

No.  Of course they don’t.

Look.  This tends to happen a lot in romances (the dearth of communication between the principals coupled with a complete lack of the usual social skills).  But as per usual, a bit of communication right away could’ve solved everyone’s problems.

Of course, then we’d have no story.

Moving on, James has decided to call himself “Jack Hawk” and has taken mistress after mistress in his new piratical career, but it’s all empty.  He’s faking it.  He knows it.  And he’s most unhappy.

As for Theo, as it’s been seven years, she’s decided to have her husband declared dead.  But wouldn’t you know it?  Her husband, James, throws off his borrowed identity and crashes the “death in absentia” ceremony, proving to one and all that he truly is alive.

So at this point, we have a couple who haven’t seen each other in seven years.  Will they get along?  Will the passion they had years ago spark to life again?  Or will it all fade away to the point that Theo asks for a divorce?

(The last question is asked merely as a formality, of course.)

Here’s my main problem with THE UGLY DUCHESS: while it’s a good novel in many respects, I don’t really buy James-the-heir’s transformation into Jack Hawk the pirate.  And because I don’t buy that transformation, I have a hard time seeing Jack — er, James — coming in and being this big, lusty man who can’t keep his hands off his newly-adjudged beautiful wife (as in the meantime, Theo’s turned into an astonishingly gorgeous woman.  Of course.)

Plus, there’s something about Theo that bothers me, too.  She’s almost too nice; she’s been slighted from the beginning due to her looks, but she takes no overt notice of this.   About the only reason we do know that it hurts her (aside from her conversations with Lord Cecil Pinkler-Ryburn, the heir presumptive to the Duchy of Ashbrook due to James’ long absence), is due to an outfit Theo wears of swan’s down — a way of twitting everyone without being vulgar.  Hmph.  (In case you’re wondering, Ms. James apologizes for the anachronism of this at the end of the book, too . . . as Hans Christian Anderson’s story wasn’t published until 1834, yet the bulk of this story is set around 1815.)

So, we have a too-nice heroine with a “macho man to the extreme” hero.  What’s going to happen?

Well, considering this is a romance novel, expect a great deal of sex coupled with Theo’s absolute submission at the altar of her new-found husband.  And a few conversations to make us feel better about it all in the bargain.

However, I didn’t see the submission of Theo as necessary or even advantageous to the plot.  This is a very strong woman we’re talking about, fairy tale character or no; she’s brought back the Duchy of Ashbrook from the brink of financial ruin.  She’s had to bury two parents — the man who raised her, the old Duke of Ashbrook (reprobate though he was), and her mother — completely alone.  She’s borne up under immense scrutiny, first from being adjudged ugly, then by all the gossips whispering nastiness after her husband left so abruptly after the wedding.

But she’s just going to submit to her husband as if he never left?

I don’t buy it.

Yet the way the story is told is charming.  The humor that you’d expect from an Eloisa James novel is present and helps give this book some life.  And it’s actually drawn from a historical parallel, as Ms. James points out in her note at the back of the book . . . but my problem wasn’t with James the gentleman pirate, per se.

It was with the whole idea that Theo should submit to him and like it, instead.

Look.  Sexual tastes come in all flavors, and I’ve read things that have disturbed me far more than this.  But for whatever reason, I just did not like the way these two came together as a couple, as it did not seem realistic whatsoever.

That said, THE UGLY DUCHESS reads well and easily.  It has funny moments.  And I mostly liked Theo, even if I did think she was too good to be true.

Grade-wise, however, that adds up to a B-minus book that you definitely should get from the library rather than buy new.

And that’s a shame.

— reviewed by Barb

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