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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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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

10 Comments

  1. AnneD
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 16:13:39

    I think I agree with much of your assessment, Jennie. Over all a good read, but areas of hmmm. I had to remind myself these two were so young in the beginning and that told in some of the decisions they made. I did like that Theo was a beautiful person because of who she was not because her face said so, and that her ‘emergence’ was to do with style. I imagine her in a way like a young Angelica Houston: http://history.sffs.org/films/film_details.php?id=4017 – very striking and memorable but not what would be considered ‘pretty’ (although much more memorable imo).

    While I thought initially of dyslexia for James, but then decided he was probably ADHD (which for many is something that improves with age/learned coping strategies). My son exhibits all those same symptoms, and while I know he can read well, trying to get him to sit still and concentrate on it long enough… well, lets say James’ situation sounded familiar :)

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  2. Jennie
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 17:04:38

    @AnneD: Anne, I thought of Angelica Huston too! Very angular features that perhaps particularly wouldn’t have been considered attractive in that era.

    I hadn’t thought of ADHD, but it makes sense – it was clear that James needed a lot of physical activity or he’d get very antsy, especially in the earlier parts when he’s younger.

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  3. Mai Xiong
    Aug 29, 2012 @ 20:19:37

    Hi Jennie. Thank you for your review. I’ve just read the book and while I love it, it bugged me and I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. You hit on why that is spot on.

    I would like to add that the plot is slightly different from what the description makes it out to be. For some reason, I thought James was going to be in London, wooing his wife. Not disappear for nine years and then come back. Despite the misunderstanding, it is a great book.

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  4. Patricia Eimer
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 06:52:49

    I haven’t read this one but I’ve read other James’s books and I’d say your review about covers them all. Ultimately readable but the middles always sort of irritate me because I want to smack the characters for not being smarter and more emotionally mature.

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  5. Sneha
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 17:31:50

    I just read this one and I was pretty disappointed in the story and the characters. Yeah, I did like the beginning part but after that it all kind of went downhill. I hated James – he lied to her, took her money, didn’t man up and stick around (leaving her to face the music and spiteful rumors), was unfaithful to her and let her believe he had died and had no contact with her for 7 years. Suddenly, he remembers how much he couldn’t live without her and she’s just supposed to let him back in ( And she does that in 2 chapters! ). Ughh.. James had very few redeeming qualities and I was pretty irritated by Theo towards the end when she seems to not have any respect for herself and just lets her philandering pirate husband back in.
    And the hero’s lack of remorse is exemplified in these quotes – “I stopped thinking of you as my spouse some years ago” and “Two days of marriage failed to impress itself upon me. I am fairly certain most men would understand my lapse”.
    I would rate this a C- read.

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  6. Jennie
    Aug 30, 2012 @ 19:41:18

    @Sneha: I would say that my feelings about the book during the middle part of it were very similar to yours, but somehow it won me over in the end. But I totally understand not being able to get over the lack of real remorse and redress on James’ part.

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  7. Dear Author Recommends for September 2012
    Sep 04, 2012 @ 10:03:15

    [...] REVIEW: The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James [...]

  8. Dallas
    Sep 18, 2012 @ 08:12:07

    I’m with Sneha, though perhaps for slightly different reasons. C-.

    Finishing this book was a chore. I didn’t like either James or Theo, and I found the rushed reconciliation unbelievable and eye-roll inducing.

    I think if the author had abandoned her (I’m assuming) pre-conceived fairy tale outline for this book and just gone wherever the characters wanted to go, the book would have been better served. JMO.

    ReplyReply

  9. Jennie’s Top Ten of 2012
    Dec 20, 2012 @ 12:02:36

    [...] for elements that don’t work as well for me. The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James, B+ My review is here. I liked this a lot, perhaps not quite as much as When Beauty Tamed the Beast, which made my top [...]

  10. Daily Deals: More from Julie Anne Long, Eloisa James; a Fantasy omnibus and a YA coming of age
    Feb 11, 2013 @ 14:02:24

    [...] book was reviewed and recommended by Jennie who wrote “James and Theo have the sort of awkward wedding night you’d expect [...]

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