Book Review

Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James


Title: Once Upon a Tower
Author: Eloisa James
Publication Info: Avon May 2013
ISBN: 9780062223876
Genre: Historical: European

Once Upon a Tower - a watercolor-like image of a woman with long hair leaning out a tower window Cover Much to my surprise, in a matter of a few months, I’ve found a second historical romance that I loved so much I gave it an A+. Normally I only love a book this much once a year or so, so that tells you how much I enjoyed Once Upon a Tower.

Eloisa James ranks high among my favorite historical romance authors. Even though I’ve loved most of her books, a few have left me lukewarm, so I opened this book with a little trepidation. I was two chapters in when I considered calling out sick from work so I could finish the book.

Now, I did the right thing and went to the office (bastards expect me to put on pants and show up every day), but I devoured the rest of the novel when I got home.

Once Upon a Tower is the fifth in James’ Fairy Tale series and is the first romance novel I’ve read based on the fairytale Rapunzel. James’ prose lends itself well to fairytale topes; it has a light, bubbly, almost musical quality to it that carries the reader along.  I find that her writing is often dangerous—it sucks me in and I’m turning pages until the wee hours of the morning, then downing triple-shot lattes the next day trying to stay awake (work also expects me to be productive. Honestly).

Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, Chief of Clan MacAulay is the prince in our story. I’m assuming he doesn’t have monogrammed towels. Anyway, the young duke is looking for a wife. He’s very specific in his requirements because Gowan is a man who doesn’t dither around. He has a huge estate to run, a lot of people dependent on him, and at twenty-two, he’s trying to restore the family honor his father drank away.

He attends a ball in London hoping to find a lady who will the fit the bill. He isn’t interested in the simpering maidens who throw themselves at his title:

“The moment he was announced, a flock of young women swiveled toward him, each face flaunting a gleaming array of teeth. To his mind they all looked constipated, though more likely the smiles were an automatic response to his title. He was, after all, an unmarried nobleman in possession of all his limbs. Hair, too; he had more hair than most Englishmen. Not to mention a castle.” (James 7).

Bitches love a castle.

When Gowan dances with Lady Edith Gilchrist, he realizes he’s found his woman. She’s quiet, serene, beautiful. He doesn’t hesitate. The next day he approaches her father, and their marriage is arranged.

Edie, for her part, can’t even remember the duke she danced with. She was burning up with fever at her debut ball, and it was all she could do to stay on her feet and keep a smile plastered on her face. Edie is not at all the silent goddess Gowan has fallen for, she’s a passionate woman, a musician, with little interest in marriage or title.

Edie and her father had an agreement. He delayed her coming out until she was nineteen so she could concentrate on the cello she loves (and by all accounts is a genius at), and when her father selects a husband for her, she goes along with it peaceably.

At its core, Once Upon a Tower is a book about misconceptions, and about falling in love with the person you married. Edie and Gowan are both young and foolish; they have preconceived ideas about each other that they must overcome.

When Gowan marries Edie, and discovers her true personality, he finds himself no less attracted to her—in fact he’s driven nearly mad by his desires. Gowan is button-downed, “stickish” as Edie calls him, and the idea of being intoxicated with his wife frustrates him to no end. He is a man of regimen, schedules, control. Edie strips him of all this. He fears that his newfound passions will drive him to become a philandering drunk like his father. Unlike most romance heroes, Gowan is a virgin. He was so traumatized by both his parents’ cheating that he felt the best thing to do was keep it in his breeches until marriage. Since this is a romance novel, there isn’t any awkward flailing around; Gowan is a brawny Scot, and he’s all very Grrr! and manly about his new found lusty-pants.

Edie is struggling with the marriage, too. Her father and stepmother have a difficult relationship, one riddled with arguments and tears. Her father is cold. Her stepmother, Layla, is depressed by her inability to have children. Edie has seen their misery, and is terrified of failing in her own marriage. Gowan’s domineering personality often reminds her of her father, and she fears that if she is lacking, he will abandon her emotionally as her father has done to Layla.

When Gowan and Edie consummate their marriage, Edie finds intercourse to be painful. She’s afraid to tell Gowan because she’s afraid there is something wrong with her, that she is broken. She hides her discomfort (Layla taught her how to fake it—for reals). Instead she pulls away from him, and finds passion in her music.

Gowan, jealous, almost obsessed with Edie, can’t bear it. He mistakes desire for love, and feels rejected:

“Even angry as he was, he still yearned to touch Edie, to kiss her, to make love to her. Given the chance he would follow her as a falcon does the falconer, as if there were a string about his leg. And yet she didn’t want him. That was manifestly clear…
In fact, he had the shrewd feeling that Edie felt that kind of joy only when playing the cello.” (James 191-192).

This could have been quite a dark book given the themes: misconceptions of character, failing marriages, fears of sexual inadequacy to name a few. It wasn’t. James writes light, airy romances filled with humor. Even when I wanted to smack Gowan and Edie upside their heads and say “talk to each other, damnit!” the book was never angsty.

Layla, who was wonderfully three-dimensional, provided many of the lighter moments. She’s fairly close in age to Edie and their relationship is more best friend that step-parent and child. Layla smokes cheroots, dresses like an opera dancer, and is delightfully candid about everything in polite society.

Edie summons Layla when she begins to fear she’s frigid:

“Layla collapsed back into her corner. ‘So the duke goes at it so long that you’re wincing.’

‘He’s simply too big.’

A short silence ensued.

‘I could say something, but I won’t,’ Layla said with a sigh. ‘It would be indelicate.’” (James 198).

Now that I’ve laid out the plot, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with Rapunzel. Gowan’s estate contains an old and crumbling tower from the thirteenth century. It’s long since abandoned, and the locals fear it’s haunted. Edie refurbishes the tower and locks herself away with her music when she and Gowan seem unable to reconcile. There she is an unreachable to him as a story-book princess, the sounds of her cello drifting down like fairy music.

The tower isn’t just a plot device, it’s a metaphor for how locked away Edie is emotionally and how Gowan is able to hear, but not reach out to his wife.

This was a perfect fairy-tale romance for me. It easily could have fallen short in the conflict category (Edie and Gowan just need to communicate), but James’ makes their misunderstandings so tied into their respective characters and painful histories that it makes sense when they are pulled apart. That coupled with excellent secondary characters and a good dose of humor makes Once Upon a Tower a new favorite for me.

This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks | All Romance eBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Natalieahart says:

    I so agree, Elyse. This book had so much to love about it—a really romantic hero (when he let himself be); two passionate people, as passionate about their misconceptions as about their higher callings; very romantic setting, what with the crumbling tower on a river and all. And the music and poetry wove a beautiful spell around the book. I love it when Eloisa James brings two virgins together and we get to watch them work out their sex life and their marital life together—she’s one of the very few who does this.

  2. 2
    cleo says:

    Hmm, I’d about given up on Eloisa James and the fairy tale series, but this sounds like it might work for me.  I really like romances where the couple has to work for their hea and especially work to figure out how to have good sex together.  A couple of my fave EJ’s (Your Wicked Ways, An Affair Before Midnight) feature married couples trying to work out their marriages and sex lives.

  3. 3
    BillieBook says:

    Layla’s speech to Gowan toward the end of the book had me crying and cheering by turns. That was such a great character moment for both of them and elevated the book from A to A+ territory. Gods, I loved Layla. It’s a nice change of pace to have a stepmother in a “fairy tale” be so completely the opposite of evil.

  4. 4
    trudy says:

    I guess the professor gets an A this time!  Great review. Love her writing.

  5. 5
    Sandypo says:

    I am also a big Eloisa James fan. But when I read the Duke’s name in your review, my first thought was “How does she come up with these bizarre, involved names?” Then I saw your comment about the monogrammed towels.  That’s why I love your blog so much!

  6. 6
    Amy K says:

    I liked this one! I really loved the slightly naughty letters they exchanged at the beginning.
    I liked how at heart the book was about two young people with no experience in the matters of love and intimacy trying to be adult, and not always succeeding. It was refreshing to read sex scenes that were uncomfortable. Because sex isn’t always fireworks. Sometimes it requires a little patience. After all, practice makes perfect!

  7. 7
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    Eloisa James, virgin hero, and a musician heroine? Sign me up. *Sigh* Y’all are going to break my wallet.

    IIRC, there was another EJ novel starring a young, inexperienced couple who had a difficult time making the sex work. An Affair Before Midnight, maybe? I liked the main story in that one, but I felt like all the subplots and secondary characters overwhelmed it and left me a bit disappointed. I’m excited to see how Once Upon a Tower pulls it off.

  8. 8
    KellyS says:

    Damn those pesky day jobs!  Why can’t they simply pay us for existing?

  9. 9
    Emily A. says:

    I really am excited for this one. I didn’t like the first two fairy tale ones as much, but this one looked so good!

    The Ugly Duchess also featured Two virgins.

    There are more than one fairy tale where the heroine is locked away in a tower including Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel and one more I can’t think.

    Great Review!

  10. 10
    Layla says:

    EJ’s books are touch-and-go for me. Sometimes I really, really love her books (see When Beauty Tamed the Beast, which I adored) and other times I want to throw them across the room. I might have to give this one a try, though!

  11. 11
    cleo says:

    @Dread Pirate Rachel – that was An Affair Before Christmas

  12. 12

    “Bitches love a castle.”

    HA! One of the best lines from a romance novel review EVER! I scared the cat away when I chortled at this.

    Once Upon a Castle is going on the to-buy list. Thanks, Elyse!

  13. 13
    Taylor Reynolds says:

    Gah. Tower. Once Upon a Tower. I was too caught up in castles still.

  14. 14
    Sarah H. says:

    You do make this sound very good. I loved a few Eloisa James books several years ago and thought I’d found a new must read author only to be left unsatisfied by several other books.

    But I think you’ve just convinced me to give her another try.

  15. 15
    Sara Darling says:

    I have a weird feeling that I read a different book than everyone else – admittedly, I just finished reading it last night and am still a little fired up.  In general, I love everything Eloisa James writes, with the occasional horrifying exception.  In this one I thought the heroine substituted perfection for personality (she’s gorgeous! she’s a virtuoso musician! And…..) while the hero was all that was handsome and brilliant and commanding despite a tortured childhood, which seems to be the excuse for him to be controlling and manipulative.  They fall instantly in love/lust, and this seems to turn into love/love by virtue of their making out and having bad sex.  Plus, he seems to have had a permanent erection for the few months this story covers, and I understand you’re supposed to see a doctor if it lasts more than four hours. The only real conflict came at the end and was really down to the hero being seriously emotionally abusive, and while he apologized, I don’t get the feeling he changed.  I ended the book feeling like I just saw the beginning of sixty years of a bland woman being terrorized by a narcissist.  The happier ending would have seemed to be the heroine going home with her parents (their story seemed much more interesting and enjoyable), learning a bit more about healthy relationships and finding love with someone who would treat her right.

  16. 16
    Stefanie says:

    I am reading this book now, based on the initial review. I have to say thank you for the suggestion! It is exactly what I was looking for! :)

  17. 17
    Clio says:

    No, @Sara Darling—I read the same book you did. Also, what’s fun about reading scene after scene of bad sex? Is romance not supposed to be escapist? A little bit of bad sex at the beginning of a relationship, especially when used to comic effect (a la Jenny Crusie’s Faking It), is one thing. Bad sex that just keeps on being bad and poisons the rest of the couple’s chemistry is something else again.

  18. 18
    Shannon Franks says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with this review. I truly enjoyed the story. Even had a teary-eyed moment at the end. It was a beautiful story.

    As for the comments that he seemed to have a constant erection—of course he did. He was a 22 year old male. It IS a near constant state. lol

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