by Eloisa James, historical (2008)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-124557-2
One, two, three, four, five... oops, Eloisa James missed hitting the keeper shelf for the sixth time with Duchess By Night. Not that I am gloating, of course, because for a long time I am convinced that this book is a keeper. What, that thing on my forehead? That's just a smudge. Don't believe those nasty people when they tell you that it's actually a tattoo that says "I'm a big fat Eloisa James fangirl".
This is easily the most conventional romance novel by the author in the last two or three years, if only because the story takes place over a few weeks in a big house and therefore there are not many opportunities for plenty of soap opera subplots to take place. You do not have to read the first book Desperate Duchesses or the second book An Affair Before Christmas to understand the story in Duchess By Night, but I suggest that you do anyway because those two books are absolutely fabulous and if you disagree, I do not know you, nor do I care to.
Harriet, the widowed Duchess of Berrow, is so proper that she realizes early in the story that she is boring even herself. When others dress up as daring glittering fancy ladies of legend in a costume party, she wears her maid's dowdy gowns in order to become Mother Goose. Harriet is a friend to Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, and the two of them have a mutual acquaintance: Isidore, the Duchess or soon-to-be Duchess of Cosway, depending on who you ask. Isidore has a problem. You see, her husband, whom she was married off to when they were both kids, is always out of the country, too busy playing at being David Livingstone when she would rather have a husband by her side so that she can get down and enjoy life as a duchess. When Isidore learns of the reclusive but scandalous Lord Justinian "Jem" Strange, a wealthy merchant whose title was given to him by the King, she decides to spark up an acquaintance with that man so that the scandal will finally drive her absent husband home to claim her as his wife.
It doesn't seem like a good plan, I know, and Harriet agrees. However, she also sees an opportunity to embrace a more... interesting, shall we say, once-in-a-lifetime escapade by accompanying Isidore and the man I am going to marry when I grow up, Leopold Villiers, to Lord Strange's Fonthill country estate. In Fonthill, there is always a party being thrown, a party where performers, academics, and even men of cloth gather to enjoy the decadent pleasures that are offered without restraint. To protect her reputation, Harriet decides to take up Villiers' idea to pose as his sheltered male cousin. Now won't that lead to some amusing turn of events when she and Jem begin to make goo-goo eyes at each other?
Eloisa James isn't a typical romance author because she always likes to make things a little different and even mix things up, if you will, and Duchess By Night is no different. This is one of the most interesting gender-bender romances I've come across because Harriet isn't a typical tomboy desperate for a penis and running wild like an idiot like heroines in her shoes tend to be in way too many romances of this sort. Instead, Harriet experiences what could best be described as sexual liberation in her disguise as a man. It is almost erotic how, liberated from the usual heavy layers of clothes that she wear in her "normal" life, she studies her bare legs as well as the shape of her rear end that are exposed by her breeches and realizes that she looks pretty hot, if she may say so. She also realizes that she has a beautiful face when she really looks at it in the mirror for the first time. Harriet's journey of self-discovery is very convincing in this story, which is why I can easily accept the admittedly implausible premise of Harriet pulling off her disguise for so long in this story.
As for Jem, he's a memorable guy indeed. He's... well, he's not Leopold who effortlessly stole my heart in An Affair Before Christmas, that's for sure, but he's a very fluid character in the sense that he has his strengths and flaws all blended together in one complex and irresistible personality. Jem is hard to pigeonhole as the tortured hero, the woobie, or any other romance hero archetype because he comes off like a person instead - complex, sometimes hard to define, sometimes so open and likable, and sometimes so unfathomable. I like him, sometimes I hate him, often I want to hit his head to make him see sense, but more often than not I would have wanted to marry him myself if Leopold Villiers hadn't spoiled me for other heroes of this author.
Their relationship is, like Jem, hard to define in simple terms because it makes me laugh, sigh, gnash my teeth in irritation, and want to knock some sense into those two. Sometimes all at once. What I do know is that for a very long time, the romance feels real, right, and absolutely magical.
So why isn't this book a keeper, you ask? Blame that on the last few chapters of this book. The story becomes admittedly much less interesting once Harriet and Jem consummate their attraction because the author then tries to introduce some internal conflicts that don't work too well for me. Oh, I appreciate those conflicts because they force Jem and Harriet to confront their feelings for each other. The fact that these characters have to deal with issues like trust and their long-term expectations of each other only makes their relationship come off as a stable and believable one.
However, I disagree with some of the methods used by the author in these chapters. For example, I am not too happy that Jem gives up way too much in the end for the relationship to work. The author tries to justify that development by having Jem experience a heavy-handed epiphany where I learn that he has never really been happy with his old life and now that he has Harriet, he is happy enough to embrace a life that is completely one-eighty from his old one. Perhaps if the gradual realization of this epiphany has been spaced out throughout the story instead of forced down my throat in a single chapter late in the story, it would have been more believable. As it is, the whole epiphany feels like a rushed attempt at forcing the characters into a happy ending. I don't buy that Jem will be happy with Harriet in the long run, not when he has to drastically change his life in order not to lose Harriet. I suppose a reader's ability to accept this happy ending hinges on how well she buys the fantasy that true love will change a man and how permanent she believes the change will be.
I wish the author has done things differently in those last few chapters, but still, for a long time this story is going so well that I am having a most enjoyable time of my life. This book isn't a keeper, but it came really close enough to being one.
This book at Amazon.com
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