Once Upon a Tower
If you like Lord of Scoundrels or the Julia Quinn Bridgerton novels, you are going to like Once Upon a Tower. But if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of those books, then you won’t like this one either. It starts out strong, cruising towards B+ or even DIK territory before everything unravels, and it just never comes back together.
It’s love at first sight for twenty-two year old Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, when he dances with nineteen-year-old Lady Edith (“Edie”) Gilchrist. Despite not having exchanged more than pleasantries, the two are engaged within hours. The book follows their courtship and early marriage as two very young strangers try to adjust to each other’s lives. Workaholic Gowan schedules everything and is constantly surrounded by servants; musician Edie wants to be left alone to practice. In addition, these two virgins have a Big Misunderstanding: Gowan thinks sex is great and wants more of it; Edie finds it incredibly painful but, panicked, fakes orgasms (her stepmother taught her how) to avoid hurting Gowan’s feelings.
The opening part of the book is good. Once you accept the immediate-engagement premise, it’s fun to watch the characters start to get to know each other. Gowan is a surprisingly mature twenty-two year old, but both he and Edie make plausible youthful mistakes. James’s writing is excellent (although not, to me, as funny as I think it was trying to be). The problems start later.
For a book which put sex so front and center – it is the core conflict of the second half of the book – I felt that the characters checked their personalities at the bedroom door. Meticulous, detail-oriented Gowan repeatedly fails to notice that his wife is in serious pain. Bold Edie, whose first letter to Gowan discussed mistresses and STDs, becomes completely unable to discuss the fact that she is not just not having fun, but that she is actively miserable. Gowan the problem-solver mysteriously forgets about the dirty books in his library, assuming that the only way to solve his sex life problem is to experiment with a barmaid. What happened to the characters I got to know in the first 200 pages?
There are some problems or inconsistencies in the writing. It bothered me when Edie smugly reported to Gowan that she’d fired multiple employees on her first day or so on the estate. I get that this was a statement on Edie’s taking control of her life; I just wish she didn’t have to do so by destroying some poor footman. Gowan is angry because Edie needs alcohol to enjoy sex, but it was supposed to be funny (I think?) when Edie’s stepmother got drunk to seduce Edie’s father. The conflict over scheduling time together sort of fuzzily fades away. Nobody ever worries about Edie neglecting the responsibilities of a duchess in order to practice (in fact, Edie fired the housekeeper for asking her too many questions about the household). But hard work was one of Gowan’s top goals in a wife. The rules just seem to be different for Edie.
This book violated multiple pet peeves of mine, which is why others may like this book more than I did. First, early in the book, we see cameos by the Smythe-Smith family. Yeah, the appalling musicians from the works of Julia Quinn. Some people may think it’s cute. In my opinion, it’s grating enough that I have to read advertisements for JQ’s other books in her books; now I have to sit through them in other people’s books, too?
I also really dislike it when characters, male or female, violate their partner’s right to bedroom privacy. All right, Edie is nineteen. I can give her a pass on asking for help from her stepmother once. But after Gowan learns that his stepmother-in-law has been told about their problems, and explicitly tells Edie how horrified and betrayed he feels, what does Edie do? Go running back to her stepmother with the latest gory details. Honey, talking to your stepmother (whose marriage sucks, by the way, so why are you asking her?) instead of your husband is what got you into this mess. Learn from your mistakes, gain some discretion, and respect your husband’s right not to have his penis be a topic of family debate.
There’s also a tremendously disproportionate grovel. This section of the review can’t help but be spoilery, so read with caution. Both Gowan and Edie have said terrible, hurtful things, Gowan to Edie’s face and Edie to her stepmother about Gowan. In my universe, these are offsetting penalties. But in the finale, in addition to enduring tirades and physical violence from multiple allies of Edie’s, Gowan has to accomplish a physical feat which people regularly die attempting, with multiple broken bones, to be considered worthy to come back into Edie’s life. Edie? She says she’s sorry. I’m sorry too, Gowan, but I think for a different reason.
Oh, and a character’s infertility is magically cured in the epilogue. With twins. Gag.
Overall, I expect Once Upon a Tower to be a hit with many readers because it so closely resembles several other big hits. It just isn’t going to be much of a hit with me.