An Affair Before Christmas
Eloisa James writes ensemble romances, and her central characters always consist of a group of women whose stories are told sometimes one after another, sometimes simultaneously. In each volume you have one central story, but added to this are bits and pieces of other stories that are not concluded in the installment. I adore Eloisa James’s characters, and I love her dialogue. So I resign myself to incomplete plotlines. I admit to some frustration, however – why doesn’t she just publish a complete boxed set? As it is, your reaction to An Affair Before Christmas will depend very much on your attitude towards ensemble romances.
The novel begins with a prologue about two young lovers in Paris. The Duke of Fletcher and Miss Perdita Selby are newly engaged and deeply in love. Yet in spite of their bliss, there is a cloud on the horizon: Whereas Fletch can’t wait to make love to Poppy, she repulses his more ardent advances and claims that ladies don’t like that. He hopes he will change her mind on their wedding night.
Four years later, the Fletchers’ marriage is deeply troubled. Both partners are thoroughly unhappy, and they have not shared a bed in months. Matters come to a crisis at a reception given at the house of the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont (incidentally, the reception that takes place close to the end of Desperate Duchesses, the first volume in this series). Fletch blames Poppy in front of both his best friend and a well-known gossip for their marriage’s failure. As a result, Poppy leaves him and moves in with Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, the only woman of the ton notorious enough that Poppy’s meddling mother will not visit her there.
Both Poppy and Fletch are very young, and they act young. They are inexperienced and deeply insecure. Their marriage has led them into a vicious circle: Poppy has been drilled by her mother on how to be a proper duchess, and she desperately tries to fulfil all these regulations: be elegantly dressed, do charitable work, act decorous at all times. In addition, she has been taught that sex is dreadful and in truth, she does not enjoy it, even if she submits to it dutifully. (Don’t worry, she is not just being silly or prudish here. There is an explanation.) In turn, Fletch is in despair because he thinks his wife does not desire him. To remedy this, he has made himself into the sexiest man in London, using the whole arsenal of clothes, hair and body, thereby frightening Poppy the more. I have to admit I adored the idea of the man turning himself into a fashion plate to gain this beloved’s attention.
Fletch and Poppy live apart for several months, only meeting occasionally. They do think about each other and about what they want from their marriage constantly, however. And both begin a vital process of inner growth. We hear more about Poppy here, and I thought her development just delightful. Fletch’s development gets less attention, but I found it equally well done. I loved these characters because they are young and unsophisticated, but not stupid, and when they get together again (before and while they have sex), the scenes are both sexy and heart-warming.
Lady Flora Selby, Poppy’s mother, enriches the plot even further. As a villainess, she is superb. She is one of those people who are openly and unabashedly selfish and on top on that firmly convinced they know what is best for everyone else. Add to this an aura of unassailable virtue, and you have Lady Flora. I am sure you know someone like her. A member of my own family is a bit like her (not my mother, thank goodness), and I took wicked delight in comparing. One of her functions is that she acts as a foil to Jemma, who also calls herself selfish, but who, in spite of all her levity, proves herself a sensitive and patient mentor to Poppy.
Now for the other plotlines. As in her other novels, Eloisa James takes on the point-of-view of quite a number of characters, major and minor. I think she does so very skillfully, but it is not everybody’s cup of tea. Although quite a number of characters turn up here that have “future heroes/heroines” written all over them, they are no more than cameos. Two plotlines, besides the main, are developed in greater detail. For one thing, we find out more about the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont. It is very interesting to compare them to the younger Fletch and Poppy, because for all their cleverness and sophistication, they are trapped to an equal degree in a web of expectations and disappointments. The final plotline is about the Duke of Villiers, the almost-villain of Desperate Duchesses. He suffered a wound in that tale, and it gets infected during the time covered in this book. In the course of his illness, he has a number of unexpected visitors, and some unforeseen events take place. I liked this plotline a lot – in fact, I got upset whenever the point-of-view changed, because I wanted to read all plotlines simultaneously.
The book has a very Christmas-y ending, but what it also provides, sadly enough, is a cliffhanger – not of the main plotline, but still. And it is not an “oh, these two could be the next volume’s couple” feeling, it is a genuine cliffhanger. Dear Eloisa James, there is no need for that. I will buy your next book anyway, because I really love your characters and style and humor.
All things considered, An Affair Before Christmas is a highly enjoyable book with great characters and lots of fun, and thus to be recommended, even with the caveat of the cliffhanger, which really annoyed me. So in spite of the book’s strong qualities, I am seriously considering placing the next installments in the series on the shelf and holding them there until all six volumes are published so I can read them all in one go.