Duchess in Love
In terms of the romance community, Eloisa James came out of nowhere a couple of years ago with the publication of her first romance in hardcover (Potent Pleasures). Perhaps because she was an unknown in the community who got a hardcover deal, when so many more familiar authors couldn’t, or perhaps because of some of the mistakes with that first novel, she was pretty soundly critiqued. You can include me in the group of those who were underwhelmed by James’ first effort. So much so that I didn’t pick up another until a coincidence brought her back to my attention. On the Reviews Message Board a poster mentioned how much she was enjoying Ms. James and a day or so later I saw her name on the list of books available for review. My curiosity piqued, I decided to give Ms. James another try, and I’m glad I did.
Duchess in Love lovingly honors Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer in a novel that took me back to much earlier Regency reading experiences. Relying on character and dialogue to move the story has become something of a scarcity in historicals set during this period. And that’s just what James does so well in her newest effort. She successfully intertwines the stories of multiple characters with wit and intelligence as they interact and intersect at a house party. There’s nary a villainous villain in this one. Central to the story are three wives who, because of their various circumstances, are at loose ends and have every intention of doing something about it. They are Ambrogina (Gina), Duchess of Girton, Esme Rawlings, and Carola, Lady Perwinkle.
Central to these central characters is Gina’s story. While still a young teen, Gina was married to Camden Serrard in an arrangement made by their parents. Before the ink was dry, Cam took off to pursue his art in Greece. Because his battles with his father left him emotionally scarred and he knows he’d never be a good husband for Gina, Cam has had no qualms about how he left things. It’s not as if Gina ever had any more desire to be married to him than he to her (at least that’s what he’s always thought). In fact they have remained friends via correspondence and Cam has only recently returned to England to grant Gina the annulment she wants. Gina has plans to marry the very proper Earl of Bonnington and can’t do so until she gets the annulment.
What sets the cat amongst the pigeons and the tongues wagging, is Cam’s first meeting with a now grown-up Gina. The realization that the intelligent, practical woman he’s corresponded with is also beautiful hits him hard (pun intended). Not incredibly original, I realize. What is original is the way he and Gina deal with this. Though he’s very attracted to Gina, he doesn’t instantly go into caveman mode like a Stephanie Laurens’ hero. His reactions are mixed. He’s certainly interested, but he’s not sure he’s ready to give up the life he has. Gina’s emotions are equally confused. Getting to be there as they untangle the complications in their relationship is part of the fun.
The originality of Gina and Cam’s interactions is only the beginning of what’s fresh in James’ novel. Also fresh is the depth of characterization given to all the other players at the house party. Bonnington is a proper stick of a man in the beginning. By books’ end he’s acted in ways he never thought possible, but which also completely fit with how he’s drawn and how he’s changed as the book progresses. Though I have a feeling he and his lady will have a book of their own,their dealings are fully drawn here and make sense for this story.
As I read of the complicated lives of the people at this party I was reminded of a couple of scenes from my favorite Austen movie – Persuasion. What I kept picturing were scenes like the one at the musicale that Anne attends. She runs into her former flame, a man she still loves. The sideways glances as she speaks with him, the cold way her family responds to him, the longing looks, the gossiping in the background by observant bystanders. It’s all there in subtle ways, as it is here. Even the writing style echoes earlier works with chapter headings like: “A Brief Conversation, the Duchess of Girton’s Bedchamber“and “An Encounter Between a Duke, a Piglet, and a Solicitor” or “A Slab of Pink Marble and a Contemplative Duke.” I loved those.
The flaw in James’ book is the fact that, though she handles the multiple relationships with their complications well, Gina and Cam’s romance does suffer. True, they remain the focus throughout the book, but because of the authors’ need to address everybody so ably, their story is a little too drawn out. Too many small miscommunications were thrown at them in order to serve the timeline of the book. A better choice might have been to shorten the book somewhat.
Even with that being said, I strongly recommend Duchess in Love. I hope it will begin a regressive trend to books that showcase people, dialogue, and relationships. Let’s dispense with the ubervillains that seemingly dominate historical romance and get back to basics, as Eloisa James has done. If she continues in this vein, I’ll definitely be there.