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.