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Eloisa James

REVIEW:  Three Weeks With Lady X by Eloisa James

REVIEW: Three Weeks With Lady X by Eloisa James

Three Weeks With Lady X by Eloisa JamesDear Ms. James:

The title of your latest book calls to mind something illicit, if not downright salacious. The reality was a bit tamer, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Lady Xenobia India St. Clair was given an unconventional upbringing by two nobly-born but free-spirited parents. Since she was left without a dowry when they died, India went into a profession of sorts, as an expert in interior decorating/temporary life management for her godmother’s aristocratic friends. It’s in this capacity that she meets Tobias “Thorn” Dautry, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers.

Thorn had a rough start in life; his father apparently made arrangements to have his many illegitimate children cared for, but something went awry and Thorn ended up spending his early childhood as a mudlark, scouring the banks of the Thames for treasures to sell under the direction of a cruel and violent master. Eventually, his father the duke relocated the son he misplaced, along with the rest of his bastards, I believe. I think this is all detailed in an earlier book, one I’m not inclined to read. A “hero” who drops by-blows all over the place and then screws up taking care of them isn’t one I’m all that interested in. But anyway, from the age of 11 or 12, Thorn was raised in the ducal home, beloved by his father and stepmother, and sent to school as befits aristocratic offspring. He’s since gone on to become an astute and successful businessman. The one thing Thorn doesn’t have is legitimacy, and while it doesn’t seem to bother him too much, he does intend to use his enormous wealth to find a suitable bride who will bring him, and the children they eventually have, respectability and social standing.

He thinks he’s found a worthy candidate in Laetitia Rainsford, a pretty, noble and sweet-tempered young miss. Sure, she also has a reputation of being dumber than a box of hair, but Thorn doesn’t see that as an impediment to a successful marriage. In his quest to get through Laetitia’s dragon of a mother, who is not happy about having to sell her daughter to a bastard, Thorn arranges to buy a country manse, sight unseen. The seller was a somewhat notorious lord who apparently held orgies and other bacchanalian events in the house. Thorn’s stepmother arranges to have India, with whom she is friendly, whip the property into shape in preparation for a house party at which Thorn hopes to press his suit with Laetitia.This all affords an excellent opportunity, of course,  for Thorn and India to be thrown together quite a lot.

India has been thinking about marriage as well. Her childhood was scarcely better than Thorn’s – for all that they were aristocrats, her parents were cash-poor, eccentric and given to dancing naked in the moonlight. She often went hungry as a child, since they were apparently too poor or bohemian or something to think about actually feeding her. (I would’ve liked a better idea of just what it was that India’s parents were so into that they forgot to feed their child; it’s not really explained that well.)  So she’s had a somewhat lonely life, at least until her parents died (want to guess how? I’ll give you three guesses. It rhymes with “carriage accident”) and she went to live with her godmother. India”s aware that her profession puts her somewhat on the edges of the society she rightfully belongs to, and she’d like to find a husband befitting the daughter of a marquess and have a family of her own. She agrees to take on the herculean project of fixing up Thorn’s new estate as sort of a last hurrah, both as a favor to her friend and because she finds it hard to resist a challenge.

It’s not just the project that turns out to be a challenge; India and Thorn clash immediately and repeatedly. I’m not usually a huge fan of characters who fall in love through bickering, unless it’s done really well. It’s actually done pretty well here, so I didn’t mind it, but for one aspect that got progressively more aggravating for me.

Look, I know that “Eloisa James” is not synonymous with “Georgette Heyer.” I expect, if not quite “wallpaper historicals”, books that take liberties with the mores and behaviors of the times. And I’ve long reluctantly accepted that egregious mental lusting is a ubiquitous feature in most historical romances (maybe most romances, period). But the frankness with which Thorn and India (Thorn mostly) talk and joke about sex is not at all realistic to the time period, as I understand it. Hell, even in a contemporary, I’d probably get icked out by all of the juvenile double entendres between an employee and employer. (And it’s not just Thorn; at one point his father the duke makes a risque joke in mixed company. Which I guess would explain where he gets it from, but doesn’t make it feel any less anachronistic or just plain rude.) I really wish all of the verbal foreplay had been toned way down.

I found myself most intrigued by and fond of two ancillary characters. The first was Laetitia Rainsford. She’s NOT stupid, though she believes herself to be. She appears to be dyslexic and a have a related tendency towards being very shy and tongue-tied, but when we get her POV she’s quite a sympathetic character. The other character I loved was Rose, a little girl who is dropped off at Thorn’s after her parents die (her father was an old friend of Thorn’s from his days as a mudlark). Rose is suspected by several characters of being Thorn’s bastard, necessitating her being hid in the dower house during the house party. She’s a preternaturally mature and self-possessed five-year-old. Precocious little kids in fiction can be tricky, but Rose’s grave maturity was very appealing.

India was not a particularly finely drawn character, but she’s fairly appealing and sympathetic. She has some insecurities over her difficult childhood. She doesn’t apologize for her lush figure; as a child who never knew when or where her next meal would come from, she’s too grateful for reliable food to turn it away. But she’s insecure over her mastery of proper grammar, which was a nice little telling detail that softened her sharp edges a bit.

Thorn was a fairly bland and paint-by-numbers hero. There were intriguing aspects to his personality – his interest in business seemed to go a little deeper than that of your average self-made man in historical romance, for one (he’s something of an inventor, apparently). He has some trauma related to the fact that his mother abandoned him and apparently never looked back; she died when he was 12 and so he never knew her. But none of it is given enough time or attention to ever really resonate. I did think his relationship with Rose was sweet; he took to being her surrogate father quickly and convincingly.

The last third of the book involved a lot of running around and teeth gnashing over who loves/doesn’t love who and who is too good/not good enough for who. It was just a bit tiresome, though I have to say that my heartstrings were tugged a tad at the end almost in spite of myself, which is why I’ll bump up my grade from a C+ to a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

REVIEW: The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

Dear Ms. James,

Last year I read and really enjoyed your book When Beauty Tamed the Beast, yet for some reason I haven’t gotten around to diving into your extensive backlist yet. When I saw that The Ugly Duchess was available for review, though, the plot blurb drew me in immediately. Our hero and heroine, James and Theodora (called Daisy by James though she herself prefers Theo) have been raised together practically from the nursery (she’s his father’s ward) and are in many ways best friends. When she is 17 and he 19, his spendthrift father informs him that he must marry Theo; not only has the Duke of Ashbrook run his own finances into the ground with bad investments, but he’s, um, “borrowed” some of Theo’s money in the mistaken belief that he could make it back and replace it before anyone knew it was gone.

The Ugly Duchess By: Eloisa James James has an understandably rocky relationship with his father, whose irresponsibility has long been apparent. He is furious not only at having to marry against his own wishes, but with his father’s insistence that he must make Theo fall in love with him; she cannot know that it’s her dowry he’s really after. James just knows that Theo will discover the truth and be devastated. He hates both the idea of hurting her and the inevitable end of their friendship. But his father forces his hand; the news that the estate is in such dire straits might not be enough to make James capitulate, but the prospect of his father going on trial for embezzling his ward’s inheritance is.

Meanwhile, Theo is chafing at the restraints that keep her under her well-meaning mother’s thumb. Theo is less than lovely, and in fact is often said to look mannish. She has strong features – dramatic cheekbones and an aggressive chin – and she is just sure that she would look much better were she allowed to dress herself. Her mother’s frilly, girlish choices – whites and pinks replete with lace and flounces – are intended to make Theo look more feminine. They end up having the opposite effect, and thus Theo is a bit of a reluctant wallflower during her first season in London. She has her eye on a matrimonial prospect – an acid-tongued young man whom she thinks she could impress with her wit, if only he’d notice her.

As it turns out, before James can even get very far in the “make Theo fall in love with him” plan, the lines between what he’s doing out of duty and what he wants are blurred. Theo is starting to look at James in a different light, too. When they are discovered in a compromising position at the Prince Regent’s musicale, James blurts out a proposal, and before you know it, they are married.

James and Theo have the sort of awkward wedding night you’d expect between two teenagers who had previously had a sibling-like relationship and who have little experience between them (James has had one mistress of short duration). But their next encounter is better – much better. Unfortunately, it comes right after Theo discovers that all of the papers that covered her wedding are calling her “The Ugly Duchess” and just before she overhears her horribly boorish father-in-law (seriously, he could have been taken down a couple of notches – he was so awful and offensive) spill out the “truth” about the embezzlement and the plan to manipulate her into marrying James. (I put qualifying quotes around truth because it’s clear that James’ feelings have become confused, even in such a short time – he’s actually very happy about the marriage, though tormented by the secrets he’s kept from Theo.) Just like that, the young couple’s wedded bliss is torn asunder; Theo kicks both James and his father out of the house – a house she now owns, due in part to James, who made sure during the drawing up of the marriage settlement that Theo was treated more than fairly.

I really liked the set-up here, even if I didn’t honestly understand why James had to “pretend” to fall in love with Theo. Their relationship seemed close and honest enough that he could have come to her with the truth – perhaps not about the embezzlement, but about the need to marry to save his estate. And honestly, everything happens so fast that he never really does much pretending or manipulating – which makes his intense guilt and their long estrangement feel kind of like a Big Misunderstanding. I generally consider it a “Big Mis” plotline if whatever causes the estrangement could have been sorted out in a conversation, and I think that’s sort of the case here. Not entirely, because there are psychological reasons on both James’ and Theo’s parts for their behaviors, but at least a bit (the fact that it does get sorted out in pretty short order in the end backs me up here, I think).

Even more problematic is that James’ solution is to take a ship (the one asset Theo specifies that he can keep) off and eventually, become a pirate (oh, sorry, privateer). Now, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief required for me to accept that a 20-year-old heir to a dukedom would take up piracy. The whole interlude didn’t really speak well of James’ character (and I’d previously rather liked him), though of course he’s kind of a Disneyfied pirate, only raiding other pirate ships and only killing really bad pirates. His attitude in the scenes depicting his years (yes, I said years) of piracy reminded me of nothing so much as Max from Where the Wild Things Are – he’s run away from home and he’s sulking his way through an awful adventure.

Meanwhile, Theo languishes in the country, rebuilding her absent husband’s family fortune. I was a bit disappointed here, too; there had been a number of indications that Theo had a strong personality and some interesting ideas about fashion and style that might bring her out of ugly-ducklingville and into swan city. Theo does head in that direction eventually, but it takes a while.

I liked the way that Theo’s looks were dealt with – often an unattractive heroine in a historical romance will have features like overly plump lips or big bosoms or thick hair or other traits that may (or may not) have been unfashionable at the time but are clearly meant to convey to the modern reader that she’d be considered attractive today. Theo instead seems to have the sort of strong features that might get a woman called “handsome” or “striking” – in a sincere, not a backhanded-compliment way. She’s not conventionally pretty, in other words, but she knows how to show her looks to their best advantage.

The pacing of The Ugly Duchess feels uneven at times – the last third of the book takes place over a much shorter period time than I expected it to, given the issues that needed to be resolved. The characters can be inconsistent, also, and some storyline threads are hinted at but not pursued (for instance, I felt it was strongly suggested early in the book that James was dyslexic, but it was never touched on again). I did like that some of James’ earlier traits – he has a fierce temper, for one – are shown to have been moderated by time and maturity. At the same it, it bugged me a bit that James had seemingly been improved by the separation, whereas Theo was really only healed of her neuroses (some of which had actually been triggered by James running off) by James’ return.

All in all, I felt like The Ugly Duchess had a really strong beginning, a problematic middle, and ultimately a satisfying (though also problematic) ending. Even when I was annoyed by the book or the characters, though, I found the story very readable and compelling. My grade is a B+. Now, to get to that backlist!

Regards,

Jennie

 

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