by Eloisa James, historical (2005)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-073206-7
Eloisa James doesn't hide the fact that she has written a book that owes much of its existence of Little Women and Rose In Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. Ms James prefers to describe herself as being "inspired" by Ms Alcott. A penultimate scene is, in fact, lifted straight from Little Women, which may not sit well, understandably, with some readers. But after all that's said and done, Much Ado About You is easily one of the most enjoyable Regency historical romances I've read since.... well, I can't remember when it is that I've found a keeper in a Regency historical romance, in all honesty. I also cannot believe that Eloisa James, of all people, have now two books on my keeper shelf, heh, but I'm so happy to be forced to eat humble pie if it means I'll have great books to read as a result.
Simply put, if you love Duchess In Love, you will most likely adore Much Ado About You, which is structurally similar to the former book in that this book is more of an enjoyable soap opera starring an ensemble cast rather than a conventional romance between Betty Bluestocking and Rakish Rafe. And just like in Duchess In Love, stereotypes are introduced in Much Ado About You and then gently skewered and developed into something more, so much more. When Ms James is at her top form, like she is in this book, she lures the reader into her story, laughs at her characters' follies along with the reader, and often introduces some elegant romanticism in her premise that stand out from the unoriginal formulaic Regency historical romances churned out monthly.
By the way, try not to read the back blurb because the blurb gives away the entire story. I believe that a reader can derive the most pleasure from reading this book without knowing where the author is taking her characters because the fun comes from going along with the ride without knowing where everyone will end up at. Of course there will be a happy ending here but otherwise, nothing about this book follows a conventional formulaic plot (no missing heirlooms, forced marriages, et cetera). It is a shame that the back blurb reveals two pivotal subplots that are meant to be "twists" in the story.
It all begins when Raphael Jourdain, the Earl of Horlbrook, inherits four female wards from a recently deceased acquaintance, a responsibility he reluctantly takes on in exchange for a prize horseflesh that will be his reward for his "generosity". To his surprise, the late Lord Brydone's daughters are not babies like he expected but young women ranging from the age of fifteen to their early twenties. The lives of four sisters, Rafe, and his friends Lucius Felton and Garret Langham intertwine and thus the soap opera that is Much Ado About You begins.
Readers may remember Garret from Your Wicked Ways where he is the man who fell in love with the silly Helene only to lose her to Helene's husband Rees. He makes it a habit to sleep with married women. Rafe, though reasons that aren't made clear here, strikes on an air of melancholy and drinks himself silly. Lucien is one of the richest man in England but because he's in trade, his parents won't speak to him. What do a merchant, a lecher, and a drunkard (as Ms James describe the three men) have to do with the Essex sisters?
At first the Essex sisters seem like stereotypes in the making. Tess, the eldest, is the responsible one. Arabella is the flighty and flirty one. Imogen is the romantic one. The youngest Josie is the plump and plain one. But it soon becomes apparent that these sisters are more than superficial stereotypes. Tess is responsible but she is level-headed in the process (which means no overdramatic feats of martyrdom from her). Arabella is pure gold as a woman who is so pragmatic and cynical that her views on men and marriage, delivered with a sharp wit, will make some traditionalist readers recoil but other readers (like yours truly) laugh along with delight. Josie is young but she isn't without wit or common sense. Imogen is the loose cannon here in that she is ridiculously, one-dimensionally infatuated with Draven, a man who is exactly like her father in the sense that the man is a horse-mad gambler who would have been paupered a long time ago were not for Draven's mother controlling the purse strings. How Freudian, really.
While the sisters try to discourage Imogen from her blind infatuation, Arabella decides that she would like to be a duchess and therefore marry Rafe, or failing that, she'd land herself an Earl - Garret. However, Garret finds Tess' dowry (a prize champion racehorse) more attractive and pursues Tess. Tess doesn't mind his attention because like Arabella, she is pragmatic enough to know that marrying a rich and titled man like Garret will only lead to better things for her and her sisters in terms of their living standards and society standing. Their father died and left them without a penny, after all. Meanwhile, Imogen insists that she is in love with Draven but Draven is engaged to the heiress Gillian Pythian-Adams. And throughout it all, Lucius and Tess discover that they are both well-matched in that both are attracted to each other and also, both of them are too sensible to yearn for true love.
Most of the fun in this book is derived from the fact that Lucius and Tess are level-headed people who by all means are very well-aware of the harsh realities about marriage in those times. This is why it is so enjoyable to watch them slowly realize just how much they have grown to love each other. For a heroine, Tess is wonderfully free from the typical "I want love! Will have sex with the hero but will not marry ever because it's better to be cheap and loose than be so immoral as to marry without love!" nonsense some heroines really love to indulge in.
As the story progresses, she along with the rest of the ensemble cast become better fleshed out, another reason why this book is a pleasure to read. The ensemble comes off like how people with common sense would behave given their adaptations to the norms and rules of society in those era. Instead of acting like an idiot while whining that they will never marry for anything less than love while sleeping around with rakes they barely know, the women in this story are mostly intelligent enough to know that, given how marriages are in those times, it is better to find an agreeable husband they can have a tolerable relationship with rather than to yearn for melodramatic "true love". Only Imogen comes off as a typical star-struck nitwit but Ms James is well-aware of how silly Imogen is. When Imogen's house of cards finally crumble, oh boy.
Other characters have well-realized traits that make them endearing and intriguing. Ms Pythian-Adams, for example, nearly steals every scene the razor-sharp intelligent woman is in. Draven's mother could have been a one-dimensional bitch but Ms James allows her to be more than that, with Lady Clarice coming off instead as a rather blunt and rude person well-aware of her station but at the same time also aware of her son's failings and trying to find a woman that can somehow achieve the impossible and change his ways. I really like Rafe, the alcoholic who at the same time comes off as endearingly noble and responsible, and I wonder why he doesn't want to marry. Is it because he is looking for the right woman or because he has a footman hidden under his bed? I really want to know more. For a while, I am even disappointed that he's not going to be paired with Tess because when they first meet, their scenes have some really good chemistry going on. Lucius is a little less well-drawn compared to his two male friends but he's a nice, slightly stiff-lipped proper gentlemanly kind of hero who doesn't sleep around or act like rakes are running out of fashion. Even Draven has a nice, poignant scene with his wife that brings tears to my eyes even when I find his display of affections quite abrupt because until then he seems to be a thoughtless man addicted to gambling in the worst way.
The prose is lively and brimming with sardonic observations, wry humor, and sharp repartees. The pace slows down towards the late quarter of the story but that is understandable, given that the Essex sisters have to confront difficult emotional issues between them and there is little chance or room to laugh.
Ms James says in one of her two afterwords that she always try to introduce strong female relationships in her stories because she doesn't believe that a heroine should be focused only on the hero in a romance story. That is a great notion, in my opinion, but I'm not sure if I'd call the Essex sisters a loving bunch, given that these sisters' camaraderie is quite forced. But Imogen's resentment and jealousy at Tess' blissful relationship with Lucius, or how Imogen digs deeper into her delusions that somehow she is still better off with Draven because Imogen is all about love while Tess doesn't believe in love - now that one rings real.
Much Ado About You is a story that has superficial familiar Regency historical plot conventions but Ms James doesn't follow them wholesale but instead makes sure that her characters become as real as possible. The emotions feel real. Nothing about this book feels derivative or overly formulaic (although fans of Ms Alcott's books may beg to differ, I suspect). And on top of it, it's so entertaining both as a comedy and a drama. Dare I hope that the author can sustain this momentum for the rest of the books in the series instead of starting with a bang and going downhill all the way like she did in her previous series for Avon?
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