Eloisa James writes “Ensemble” novels, focusing on a set of people and with storylines which can span several books. It is a style that either resonates with you or doesn’t. In general, while I prefer to read romances which focus primarily on the hero and heroine, I can enjoy James’s style – dependent upon the characters in her cast of thousands. Unfortunately, there were precious few characters I liked in Desperate Duchesses and so the novel fell flat for me.
This is a difficult synopsis to write since normally, to avoid spoilers, I rarely reference any event that occurs past page 100 in books I review. But, by page 100, in this book I still had no idea who the hero and heroine were to be. Because of a prologue I thought I knew who the heroine was, but that character had much less page space devoted to her than several others. So, be warned: To give a synopsis and to adequately describe what and whom I didn’t like, there may be spoilers. Proceed at your own risk!
Our heroine is Lady Roberta St. Giles, whose father is known as “The Mad Marquess” for his emotionally overwrought – and execrable – poetry and lamentable tendency toward public scenes. (The Mad Marquess is one of the few characters I liked.) Despairing of ever finding a husband when her father refuses to take her to London, Roberta goes to the capital on her own and throws herself on the mercy of her distant cousin, Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont. Roberta begs Jemma to help her snare the Duke of Villiers, a dark, haughty man, whom Roberta thinks is perfect, for she knows he will never spout poetry at her. This seems to be Roberta’s sole criterion on what makes a man a good husband and nothing she subsequently learns of Villiers’ sketchy morals or character deters her from her course, even though she is soon trading kisses and more with Jemma’s brother, Damon. I did not like Roberta, but to be fair, we really see so little of her until the last third of the book that it was difficult to get to know her at all.
As for Jemma, she has been estranged from her husband for years and is recently returned from France, where she made quite a name for herself as a master chess player, hostess of scandalous parties, and desirable lover. Her husband’s health is in question and she has returned to do her duty and provide an heir, though she tells him that she’s not yet ready to become intimate, instead preferring to flirt, entertain men in her boudoir as she dresses and scheme with Roberta to snare Villiers – which somehow entails playing chess matches with him in her bedroom – even as she sees that her brother is falling in love with Roberta. I did not like Jemma, though she is clearly James’s favorite character, as most of our time is spent with her. The Duke and Duchess of Beaumont’s storyline is unresolved in this book and I predict will be featured throughout the Desperate Duchesses series.
The Duke of Villiers’ reigning passion is chess and he is regarded as the best player in England. He is intrigued with Jemma and wants her as his lover, as well as his chess opponent. Oddly enough, he’s decided that the best way to do this is to marry Roberta, but advises her – on the day they get engaged – to lose her virginity before the wedding, for virgins are so tiresome, you know. I didn’t like Villiers either. Roberta obliges Villiers by sleeping with Damon – on the day she gets engaged. I just didn’t like any of these people.
The setting is Georgian England, a refreshing change from the usual Regency, and James obviously revels in the new setting, giving loving detail about panniers and wigs and powder and patches and the extravagant heels and brocades of the men. It is also a bawdier, more risqué time and the characters reflect that as well, though all too often they came across to me as amoral rather than risqué. Again, not to my taste.
I can quickly name at least eight different character points of view in the novel, including a slight, peripheral character whose inclusion surprised me. I can only assume that we will be seeing more of her in future books, but she is so little connected with the main players in this book, that it really bothered me whenever we switched to her point of view. There is so much shifting from character to character compacted in a short time span – the novel comprises less than two weeks – that I felt disjointed and disconnected from the narrative, something which is not usually the case with James’s writing.
Desperate Duchesses did improve in the last quarter of the book, which then mainly focused on Roberta and Damon – and I know I haven’t talked about Damon much, but truly, until this last section, he has even less page space than Roberta, so there’s not much to tell without giving away the ending – and I found that I liked the resolution to their story and believed in their HEA. But this is not enough for me to like or recommend the book.