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REVIEW: An Affair Before Christmas by Eloisa James

Dear Ms. James:

006124554201mzzzzzzz.jpgAn Affair Before Christmas is the first book of yours I read, and I did so without knowing where it is in your canon or how it relates to any other books (now I know that is it second in your Desperate Duchesses series). The title of the series reflects a heroine-centric focus I appreciate, and the obvious overlap of characters from book to book creates a community sense that appeals to me. Both of these elements make me glad I tried An Affair Before Christmas, and even though the book didn’t wow me, I will likely read the next in the series to find out what happens to the secondary characters.

Before I go any further, I will warn anyone who dislikes spoilers that this review depends on a few of them.

When we first meet Poppy and Fletch, they are a young couple, engaged and hopeful and celebrating Christmas in Paris where they met and fell in love. We're not yet privy to Poppy's marital aspirations, but we discover that Fletch is anxiously awaiting his wedding night and the chance "to worship Poppy’s body, taste the sweet salt of her sweat, kiss away her tears of joy after he brought her to the ultimate happiness." It is a "French-inflected lust" Fletch feels for his "little Poppy," and he is especially anxious because despite Poppy's sensuous beauty (Fletch imagines she will be more delectable than a truffle), she is not particularly welcoming of his tongue in her mouth or anything more earthy that Fletch would like to try with her — no doubt to bring her to that "ultimate happiness.”

So it is no surprise to the reader that four years later, when the novel opens properly on the life of the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher, their marriage is troubled by incompatible expectations and a lack of communication. Both Fletch and Poppy are troubled, Fletch by the lack of passion his wife shows in the bedroom (and his inability to bring her to that much imagined rapture) and Poppy by an inability to understand her husband’s simmering resentment, dwindling interest, and startling transformation into one of the most sensually beautiful noblemen in England – a man who “prowls” rather than walks, and who leaves his hair unpowdered because “when he pulled his hair from its ribbon, unruly locks tumbling to his shoulders gave the impression that he just rose from a bed in which he had been well pleasured.” Poppy, on the other hand, is as exquisite and fragile-looking as any china doll, petticoated and panniered, her hair a veritable tower of bows and feathers and intricate coils of flaxen tresses. These affectations reflect the masquerade of their marriage, which is mutually unmasked when Fletcher publicly humiliates Poppy at a ball, catalyzing a separation that only one of them seems anxious to mend.

The anxious one is Fletch, which might seem a bit counter-intuitive, until we find out a bit more about Poppy and all the steps that brought her into a marriage with Fletch. Or at least the one giant step, namely the push her controlling, ambitious, and rigidly unpleasant mother gave her from birth in the direction of any eligible duke. Practically from the cradle Poppy was conditioned to marry a duke, with absolutely no instruction in the actual art of marriage beyond securing her position as duchess. The cruel Lady Flora also ordered her daughter to “suffer” the “indignities” of sex for the purpose of an heir and freely expressed revulsion to anything resembling physical intimacy and sexual pleasure. Consequently, Poppy grows up repressing her own interests and following her mother’s example in sexual remoteness, learning to appease a parent who would resort to hysterics and even physical assault when her word was questioned or circumvented. So poor Fletch, with his idealistic vision of bringing his lovely young wife to rapture, was frustrated instead, confused and hurt, yet unable to bring himself to seek out another woman as mistress. It’s Poppy he wants to love and please.

But the separation has shaken something loose in Poppy (not her hair, unfortunately), and for the first time in her life she feels free from the expectations of either a husband or a parent:

What she felt was weary. Tired of people who disapproved, people who were impossible to please, people who made her feel inadequate. Stupid. That was the one clear thought she had in her head. She didn’t want to be screamed at by her mother. And she didn’t want to see that closed, disgusted look on Fletch’s face ever again, even if that meant she never saw him again.

She tries to talk to Fletcher, but like everything else in their relationship, the exchange merely reflects their different paradigms for marriage. Poppy has tried to please Fletch by “submitting” to his wishes in the bedroom, and Fletch views her efforts as a rejection or sorts. Tired of disappointing Fletch, unable to appease him as she has learned to do with her mother, Poppy leaves Fletch and moves in with the slightly scandalous Duchess of Beaumont, able finally to indulge her real first love – Naturalism.

I have a soft spot for “marriage in trouble” scenarios, because marriage provides a convenient frame for the more prickly emotional and physical levels of intimacy. And although I rolled my eyes in the prologue at the idea of one more sexually inhibited heroine, I understood that the sexual incongruity in Fletch and Poppy’s relationship was symbolic for mismatched expectations. I similarly hoped that Poppy’s love of Naturalism would complement the relationship conflict; however, it created one of my biggest problems with the book.

Poppy isn’t just a hobbyist when it comes to her Naturalist tendencies; she writes letters to various scholars advising them of opposing opinions and questioning some of their conclusions. Which, in my book (har har), means she’s a scholar by nature, even if she had to hide her father’s Naturalist texts under her bed and her interest from virtually everyone. Loosed from the hold of her marriage, Poppy is free to exercise publicly what she has been nurturing in private: her love of all things, well, natural. Which brings me back to the issue of her marriage and the question of her blind subservience to her mother’s harsh advice, both about dress and sex.

While I suspect I was supposed to enjoy the irony of Poppy’s interest in Naturalism and ignorance of socially-ordered relationships between humans, instead I found her inability to think past her mother’s words unrealistic. Not that I expected her to take Fletch’s pre-wedding advice and consult the Duchess of Beaumont on the custom of romantic kissing. But why wouldn’t a woman so deeply inclined to puzzle through the natural habits and customs of animals spend so much time wondering why she was a disappointment to her husband and not conducting some sort of research, even if it was casual observation of others or exercising her well-developed talent for acquiring and hiding contraband books? Even the “real” reason for some of her sexual remoteness seemed a perfect subject of inquiry for the naturally curious Poppy, and the fact that she never really pursued an investigation struck me as strange. Especially because Poppy is obviously using her natural insight and analytical skills on Fletch before they are married:

Lady Poppy was a practical little soul, at the heart. She could see that her husband’s easygoing manners and sweet eyes masked a sturdy determination to get his own way. One only had to look at his wind-swept locks to see that. Never a touch of powder!

And when they do finally find their groove, Poppy treats Fletch’s body to her own scientific exploration, and “[b]eing a naturalist, she accompanied her little experiments with a stream of commentary.” I just was not able to reconcile Poppy the tenacious and insightful Naturalist with Poppy the miserably confused and ignorant wife.

Because I could not fully embrace Poppy’s characterization, I also could not fully understand her love for Fletch, whose adolescent desire to please his wife sexually was so obviously much more about him than about Poppy. And as amusing as that was, I did not see such a profound change in Fletch, whose honorable (and perhaps unfashionable) refusal to take a mistress could not fully eclipse the way he continued to see their relationship in primarily sexual terms. Sure he suffers through the museums of natural history and the lectures at the Royal Society with Poppy. Yes he shows a moment of real insight when he realizes that Poppy feels overwhelmed sexually and works to earn her trust by promising her a life without sex. But I never felt he got past seeing his “little Poppy” as a reflection of his own masculinity; in fact, he almost seems disappointed when she finally starts responding because he cannot understand why it happened:

Well, what was it? How could it be the same woman he’d made love to for years? What happened to her?
It made him feel uneasy, as if the ground had shifted under his feet. Only last year she would lie before him like a chilled piece of molded butter, and now she was melting and shrieking… and it wasn’t anything he did, either.

And when they are finally reconciled, and Poppy tells him that she doesn’t deserve him, Fletcher responds with this: “I feel the same way. The way you respond to me while making love-” By the end of the novel, despite the fact that he recognized his wife’s value in editing his wildly popular speeches in the House of Lords, I’m not sure how far he has gotten past his initial estimation of her: Little Poppy was the sweetest girl in the world, but she was devilishly hard to kiss. She may no longer be hard to kiss, but I wonder how easily Fletch understands his scholarly wife. Her mother he seems to understand, though, although her characterization didn’t seem particularly subtle or complex, and I did enjoy the nice twist he serves that seriously twisted character.

While the main romance did not totally succeed for me, I did like the ensemble-feel of An Affair Before Christmas, especially the situation of Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, and Charlotte Tatlock’s interesting dilemma. Although at times the writing felt a bit forced, when the characters relaxed into real dialogue, I fell right into the rhythm of the prose and enjoyed a number of small descriptive moments, like Jemma’s characterization of Fletch as “tediously beautiful,” what with “the way he slouches through a room, burning with something or other.” I also loved one scene in which Fletch and Poppy share a revelation about her hair that advances the emotional intimacy of their relationship; had there been more thoughtful moments like that I might have been better sold on the characterizations and the True Love.

I do not know if An Affair Before Christmas is classic Eloisa James or not. Despite what didn’t work for me, though, I had enough interest in the writing, the dialogue, and some of the secondary characters to try the next book in the series and perhaps a backlist title, as well. For this book, though, the highs and lows of my reading experience average out to the middle ground of a C.

~Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market or ebook format.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

12 Comments

  1. Jill Myles
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 15:22:44

    I really liked this book (read it in one sitting) and I didn’t feel that Poppy’s ‘bookishness’ was at odds with her naivete. I interpreted it as her being more fascinated with curiosities and strange things than puzzling through animal behaviors in nature. So it worked for me.

    I liked this book a lot more than Desperate Duchesses. Unfortunately I just wish they were less ‘ensemble’ and more about the two main characters. That, I think, would make a near-perfect book for me.

  2. Dev
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 15:51:40

    Normally, Eloisa James is an autobuy for me but for some reason I’ve been really hesitant to pick this one up. Your review is making me rethink that. I may have to get it the next time I’m out.

  3. SarahT
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 15:55:14

    After reading Desperate Duchesses, I had reconciled myself to the fact that Eloisa James’s books are ensemble pieces. My main objection to An Affair Before Christmas was the fact that there were so many secondary characters.

    I’m sorry but I simply can’t emotionally connect with that many potential H/hs, especially as I know they’ll all be short-changed when it finally comes to *their* book.

    I could kind of cope with juggling two or three potential future couples. Now that the series has been extended to six books, it’s just a farce.

  4. Jill Myles
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 16:13:36

    It’s been extended to six books? Really?

    I find that a little intimidating as well. And a little gleeful because I’ll probably still pick up all six books.

    To be honest, I skim the POV switches that I’m not interested in, and keep the book on my nightstand. When the next one comes out, I’ll pull out both copies and read the pieces together.

  5. Jane
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 16:17:41

    Sarah T – I am with you. After reading Desperate Duchesses, I just came to the conclusion I am not the reader for James’ style of storytelling.

    I wonder, though, at the making of secondary characters interesting at the expense of the primary characters. Is that something we should laud an author for?

  6. SarahT
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 16:51:43

    I wonder, though, at the making of secondary characters interesting at the expense of the primary characters. Is that something we should laud an author for?

    IMO, definitely not! When I pick up a romance novel, I expect to engage with the main characters and follow their story through to a satisfactory conclusion. Sympathetic secondary characters should remain just that. I don’t want to have the book focus so much on peripheral characters that they detract from the main couple.

  7. Sarah
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 20:45:39

    IMO, definitely not! When I pick up a romance novel, I expect to engage with the main characters and follow their story through to a satisfactory conclusion. Sympathetic secondary characters should remain just that. I don't want to have the book focus so much on peripheral characters that they detract from the main couple.

    Well said! I frankly end up skimming most secondary romances. Maybe that’s just me, but I truly want to follow the main characters’ romance. If I wanted several love stories in one book, I’d read an anthology. I think the author shortchanges not only the characters but the readers when they put too much focus on a secondary romance. Readers (well, ok, maybe just me) really like to give their all to a romance, to fully invest themselves in the main romance. That is hard to do when there seems to be a surplus of romance storylines floating around in the story.

    Lately it seems like a secondary romance is required though, or at least, has to be heavily hinted at in order to prepare for the next book in a series. That is frankly annoying.

  8. Jane
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 21:12:02

    I think it definitely is a series oriented plot device and you both make compelling arguments for the idea that secondary characters show a writer’s flaws instead of her strengths, but if the author moves you with her secondary characters, it shows some skill – maybe just applied to the wrong people.

    My biggest problem with the first book in the series is that it was so lacking in focus on the primary couple that it was a struggle to read those sections. I don’t know how successful an author is when readers skip large portions of the book.

  9. Janet
    Nov 26, 2007 @ 22:33:48

    I didn't feel that Poppy's ‘bookishness' was at odds with her naivete. I interpreted it as her being more fascinated with curiosities and strange things than puzzling through animal behaviors in nature. So it worked for me.

    I didn’t have a problem with her naivete, Jill; in fact, I kind of liked that both she and Fletch were immature. I get a little tired of young characters acting like elders and innocent women acting like brothel graduates. It was the fact that Poppy was so damn curious that caused problems for me. I mean, she was willing to crawl through the snow to find a rabbit den, and she brooded over the opposable thumbs and species classification of possums. Why wouldn’t she be equally curious about the customs and habits of the species homo sapiens, even in the artificial environment of society? Anyway, I’m glad it worked for you.

    Dev: I hope you like it. I haven’t seen a lot of reviews for it, but I’m interested in knowing what other readers think.

    SarahT: I am not opposed to books with secondary romances, but in this case, I think it was a mixed blessing. OTOH, because I felt that the characterizations of Poppy and Fletch were problematic, the secondary characters kind of kept me engaged in the book. OTOH, though, it may have been partly the attention paid to those other characters that took away from James’s ability to further develop Fletch and Poppy. Since I haven’t read any of her other books, it’s a tough call for me.

    Jane: I noticed that the first book in this series got a very low grade at AAR — apparently it signaled a bumpy start to this series.

    Sarah: I like the feel of ensemble books, but I definitely think it’s a difficult balance to devote enough attention to the main characters and not make the secondary stories sequel bait. I think Kresley Cole does a good job of that. I also like some of the overlap in the Susan Elizabeth Phillips books. And I enjoyed the way Loretta Chase handled the Carsingtons in that series. Other times it’s really irritated me, and perhaps if I had read more James, it would have bugged me here, too. It’s true that there is A LOT of coverage of secondary characters in this book.

  10. Dee
    Dec 16, 2007 @ 18:43:36

    Hello Janet,

    I am a late comer but I wanted to tell you that I really liked this story. At times it felt too crowded and other characters overshadowed the lead. That annoyed me at times but all the stories were interesting that I did not mind it that much. I have to disagree with your assessment of Fletch. I think he was young man with a frigid wife. That was very challenging, young men are easily disappointed and insecure about their sexual prowess. It was very realistic for him to obsess over her coldness towards him. I actually liked how they grew up together. When he found out that his wife needed permission to go to her lectures, he blamed himself.

    Having said that I find certain things annoying, such as referring to Poppy as a Lady when she was a miss (her mother's biggest beef against her father was that he was not titled, so how can she be a lady). I hate it when authors do not pay attention to small details.

  11. Vicki
    Dec 30, 2007 @ 07:28:50

    Hello all,

    I, too, am a late comer. I liked the subplots, but was disappointed that those subplots were not brought to conclusion. Whom did Charlotte choose? Did Jemma and Beaumont reconcile and have children? Did she ever get her chess set? If so many pages are to be devoted to the subplots, I’d like to know their endings as well.

  12. Jishifruit
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 14:52:30

    @Vicki:

    Hi Vicki! I’ve read all six books and Jemma And Beaumont’s story concludes by the fourth installment. :) Charlotte chose the rich sailor. I think it was mentioned on the latter part of the book. Lo! Villiers has a story of his own which is the last book :D

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