All right, finished my first Eloisa James novel, and… well, it wasn’t painful. It was, in fact, mostly pleasant. Overall, though, I think the book was pretty damn lukewarm because—ah, hell, Sarah said it best when we were discussing it last week: “Early parts of the book were fab. And then it felt like the author had a big, “Uh, what do I do now?” moment and ended up driving the story while she applied mascara with one hand, drank coffee with the other, and changed the radio station with her right big toe.”
The book starts off promisingly enough, then degenerates into a morass of misunderstandings that includes every one of the not-inconsiderable secondary cast of characters. The ending is also one of the most odd, drawn-out resolutions I’ve ever read; it’s almost like watching clowns pouring out of a car: just when you think “OK, the last clown is out, show over” another one hops out, does a soft-shoe then drags out yet another compatriot hidden in the trunk, who in turn reaches into the car and presents to us a midget hidden under the back seat.
Gina, Duchess of Girton was married to her childhood friend Camden when she was only 11 and he was only 18. Why exactly they had to be married remains a mystery to me. It’s all incredibly silly: Gina is illegitimate, the product of her father’s liaison with a hot French countess (gotta love those wacky, slutty French countesses). She was unceremoniously dumped at his household when only a few weeks old because the countess didn’t want to be burdened with a child. Her father and her stepmother decided to raise her as their own, and the secret is quite neatly kept until she’s 11, when a blackmailing letter arrives out of the blue threatening to out Gina’s bastardry.
So what do these seemingly rational adults do? Well, Gina’s stepmother’s brotherâ€”then the Duke of Girtonâ€”calls his son, Cam, down from Oxford to marry the 11-year-old he’s known as his first cousin all his life. How or why this averts scandal or foils the blackmailer completely escapes me, but for whatever reason it worked. Maybe the tactic was so outrageously silly that poor blackmailer was confused and reckoned he’d better stop demanding money from a bunch of lunatics.
Unfortunately, Cam is so outraged by the whole business that he literally leaps out the window after the ceremony (yes, this is indeed a silly book, and the more I have to recount the plot the sillier it seems) and runs away to Greece, where he is free to follow his heart’s desire: sculpt naked women out of marble.
Eleven years down the road, Gina falls in love with Sebastian, Marquess Bonnington, and writes to Cam requesting an annulment. Cam decides to be a good sport. He’s quite fond of Gina, after all, and has kept up a correspondence with her all these years; he just doesn’t want to be married to her. So he returns to England to file the papers. It seems simple enoughâ€”that is, until he meets Gina at a house party.
Oh my, the little girl has filled out. He finds himself attracted to the lively, somewhat dashing young woman Gina has become. Then he meets her fiancÃ©, Sebastian. He very accurately classifies him as a prig, and he rapidly realizes that the two of them will be miserable together. Gina is coming to the same realization as well. Sounds good, right? But there are so many obstacles in their way…
Oh, wait. There aren’t. But this doesn’t stop them from manufacturing a few from thin air, of course.
And then there are the secondary romances. First of all, there’s Gina’s friend, Carola Perwinkle. She has been estranged for years from her husband, Tuppy. Why? Because losing her virginity hurt. Oh, and because Tuppy likes to fish and talk about fishing. No, I shit you not. Boiled down to its essence, these are the two reasons for the estrangement. Carola abandons Tuppy in a fit of hysterics mere days after wedding, then in a series of increasingly silly misunderstandings, pushes off the possibility of reconciliation further and further.
Their eventual reunion is sweet enough that it made me go “awwww,” but it also left me feeling incredibly depressed because I just absolutely KNOW Carola is going to pitch a shit-fit over something inconsequential a couple of days down the line and poor Tuppy will be too thickheaded to figure out anything and she’ll just end up moving out in a huff again and really, when I think about Carola all quivering and teary-eyed YET AGAIN I want to bawl out of sheer exasperation myself.
And then there’s Esme Rawlings. You know how in a group of fictional girlfriends there’s always the smart one, the stupid one, the tomboy and the slut? Heh. Anyway, Esme and her husband, Miles, have been estranged for years and years, though for much better reason than Carola and Tuppy: Miles is much older than Esme, and he meets and falls in love with a woman he’s much better suited to after he’s married. Esme has quite the reputation for being a heartbreaker and harlot du jour, though of course it’s quite exaggerated. So guess which completely inappropriate hunka burnin’ love she longs for. Just guess. To give James due credit, she gave plenty of clues but I still didn’t see it until it was right in front of me.
But man, the showdown between her and her light o’ love (I understand their love story becomes a running theme in the three books that follow Duchess in Love) towards of the end of the book just about takes the cake for Dumb Misunderstanding. Ah well, at least the author puts a fresh new spin to it, instead of resorting to conniving parents, cross-dressing and/or long-lost brothers with criminal tendencies.
Oh, wait, scratch the last one, because believe or not, there IS one of those in this book, though he doesn’t belong to Esme, and he doesn’t really cause any misunderstandings. Why exactly he’s in the book at all is a mystery, but then why anything is in this book tends to be pretty enigmatic on the whole, so why mess with a system like that?
The only reason why this book doesn’t dip right into the D range is because of the extremely engaging characters. Gina, Cam, Esme, Sebastian, and yes, even Carola and Tuppy are adorable and fun to read about. Just when I think that, say, Gina and Carola have shot right into the stratospheric heights of stupidity, never to return, they redeem themselves and figure shit out. Or at least Gina figures shit out; Carola just whimpers about how chubby she is and quivers like warm jelly, which, come to think of it, pretty damn well represents what’s sloshing around in her brain box.
So in short: a very entertaining book on the whole, though the plot is… frantic? Yes, frantic and somewhat incoherent. Again, not unlike Carola. Hmmm. I do have to give it this: I did keep turning the pages very briskly just to see what the hell else was going to happen. I just wish I didn’t get the sense that while writing the book, James had a huge wheel in her office labeled with every plot contrivance known to literature (and a few new ones she made up on the spot) and that every 55 pages or so she gave it a vigorous spin, just to keep us on our toeses.