15 April 2012

Eloisa James: The Duchess Quartet

Back to Eloisa James and an earlier series: her Duchess Quartet.

The first book, Duchess in Love, introduces us to Ambrogina (Gina), the Duchess of Girton.  She was married to Cam when she was eleven (illegal) and the groom (eighteen) promptly decamped to Greece to be a sculptor.  Gina is now all grown up and impatient to actually be a wife.  She finds a suitor - Sebastian Bonnington - and decides that she ought to have her marriage annulled so she can marry the very proper and very present marquess.  At a house party - and it's one of those house parties where is seems no one sleeps in their own bed - Cam shows up, hunks of pink marble in tow, to throw a wrench in those plans.  Meanwhile, Gina's friend Esme decides that it's time she and her aimiable-but-infatuated-with-his-mistress husband to try for an heir whilst another friend, Carola, starts to reconcile with her estranged husband Tuppy (Tuppy?).

There are sooo many plotlines in this book.  Gina uncovers a secret about her past, the prudish Sebastian constantly picks on Esme for her outrageous lifestyle (even though he secretly wants in her knickers), there's a bit about thieving from a sculpture, a reading from Shakespeare that gets everyone all hot and bothered, and another character, Helene, the Countess of Godwin, who is also estranged from her husband.  Oy.  And then everyone starts to try and reconcile and stuff really gets all crazy-pants.  The cute and funny bits that make Eloisa James novels got a bit lost in the multiple plotlines.  The transitions in the last few chapters were pretty shaky.

So you'd think that the next novel would give the A-plot to Esme or Helene, right?  Nope, we get an all new heroine, Lady Henrietta McClellan, and hero, Simon Darby in Fool for Love.  Simon is the now-widowed-and-pregnant Esme's nephew by marriage; if the baby she's carrying turns out to be Rawlings's son, Simon is disinherited (since he has a fortune, it's not a huge deal but the title would have been nice).  There's some contrivance about how Henrietta and Simon meet and an issue with Henrietta herself - she's been told she can't have children (therefore, no marital relations) due to a congenital hip deformity.  When Simon withdraws his suit because he isn't interested in a wife in name only, Henrietta writes a love letter to herself and signs Simon's name...which of course gets out into public circulation forcing Simon and Henrietta to marry.  This actually makes the story more interesting because there is a brief, in-depth discussion of Regency birth control.  It's pretty accurate and made me wish that Simon had thought of that in the first place.  Meanwhile Esme is besotted with her "gardener", one Sebastian Bonnington in disguise, which leads to some interesting sexy interludes.

Esme finally gets some resolution to her plot in A Wild Pursuit.  She doesn't get the book to herself, though, because the other romantic couple is comprised of Lady Beatrix Lennox and Stephen Fairfax-Lacey, the Earl of Spade.  Unfortunately, I really didn't pay as much attention to the couple (they were just wallpaper).  Esme is still slumming a la DH Lawrence with her naughty gardener, though we are thankfully spared ridiculous sentiments about naming body parts.  The plotlines of the foursome becomes entangled due to everyone's inability to be honest about their feelings and Esme's mommy issues - her mother is dreadful.  I give James a lot of credit for doing something daring by having a very pregnant heroine - who is pregnant for the better part of two books - and is still desired and pleasured by her lover.  I do have to agree with Beatrix on the subject of Helene - if I had a husband who enticed me to elope then ran about installing an appalling number of mistresses in my household I'd stab him with a fork/take to blunt objects, too. Helene is a rather pitiable character but a bit tiresome since this has been a third book with her as a side character and she's made little to no progress with her story.

Finally, we get to Helene's book, Your Wicked Ways.  And Helene finally has it with her husband - she decides she wants a baby so she decides to stop being so very virtuous (since that hasn't got her anywhere) and be very, very wicked indeed.  She wears provocative gowns, dances scandalously, and crops her hair very short in the latest outrageous style.  All this does is catch the eye of her husband, Rees.  The man is having trouble writing an opera (both he and Helene are musicians, which is what drew them together in the first place) so he strikes a deal with Helene: if she will help him with the opera, he'll have "marital relations" with her so she can have children.

This last is the best book in the quartet, in my opinion.  It is the most polished and has the fewest side plots (there's a B-plot romance involving Rees's vicar brother and his most recent mistress/opera singer).  After disliking/not getting Helene's issues in the previous books, it was nice to see her go wild.  I also liked seeing the Earl of Mayne in his pre-Essex sisters days.

Compared to the Desperate Duchesses, the Essex sisters, and the Fairy Tale novels, the Duchess Quartet is very uneven.  I didn't like all the characters and there were too many extra plotlines.  I'd read some of the plots before (Gina and Cam had the same problems as Isidore and Simeon, Helene and Rees/Carola and Tuppy were very like Poppy and Fletcher) so they seems a bit recycled since I'd read them all so close together (but in reverse since I was reading the series newest to oldest).

(I also picked up an e-novella, A Fool Again.  Goodreads lists it as #1.5 in the series but is better off as #2.5 because the hero is Tobias Darby, brother of Simon.  It also connects the Essex sisters because Lucius Felton shows up as one of Genevieve's suitors.)

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