by Tamara Lejeune, historical (2010)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0873-6
Christmas With The Duchess has a unique couple in the forefront, but author Tamara Lejeune has no idea what to do with them.
Emma Grey Fitzroy, whose husband the Duke of Warwick died about a year ago, is a refreshingly different heroine in that she is, as she puts it, never a martyr to her unhappy marriage. When she discovered that her husband was fooling around with other women, she took lovers of her own as well. She is well aware of her status as the dowager and the mother of the new Duke of Warwick, and she also at first doesn't mind manipulating men to her benefit. Her problem arises from the fact that the guardian of her children is her obnoxious brother-in-law Lord Hugh. He has since taken her two sons to some place without her knowledge or permission and he wants ten thousand pounds, for a start, in exchange for the opportunity for her to see her children.
The Fitzroy clan may despise Emma for marrying her late husband, but they have no problems attending the Christmas gathering at Emma's place every year. When the story opens, Lord Hugh brings not only his family but also his cousin, the new Earl of Camford. Nicholas St Austell's father was banished from the clan when he married Nicholas's mother, but you know how it can be sometimes - all the other men died, leaving Nicholas to inherit the title and all the money that comes with it. Lord Hugh is the first to welcome Nicholas back to the family with open arms. A 20-year old former member of the Royal Marine, Nicholas not only has no idea how to behave around his family but he is also naïve and gullible to boot. Oh, and he's a virgin.
Emma, realizing that this young man of almost ten years her junior is attracted to her, decides to use him as a leverage to get back at Hugh. Hugh desperately wants Nicholas to marry one of his daughters, so if Emma manages to secure Nicholas's affections, she can bargain with Hugh on a more level playing field.
At first, this story is a hoot. It is more of an ensemble comedy than romance, as the author focuses not only on Emma and Nicholas but also on the antics of Emma's gay twin brother Colin, the cold but ambitious eldest daughter of Hugh named Octavia, the precocious Julia who is determined to upstage her sister Octavia, Emma's spinster aunt Harriet, and a few other people. Still, the comedy is fabulous. I especially laugh when Emma discovers how boring Nicholas is as a lover during their first love scene - that man is not some innately skilled fellow when it comes to the bedroom, that's for sure.
But the comedy of errors just keeps coming like a relentless tidal wave bent on sweeping me away completely. Misunderstandings pile up, people refuse to talk, and they deliberately say mean things to each other just to prolong conflict. People keep ending up in the wrong bed and being discovered by the ones they care about, the same ones who will automatically assume the worst. Emma spends a year assuming the worst of Nicholas each time the wrong bed scenario happens, and this scenario happens twice. Two years wasted just like that. There is just too much stupidity happening at an alarming frequency, so much so that after a while I want to scream and kick some sense into these characters' thick skulls.
By the time the story finally ends, I feel as if I had been trapped in an interminably stupid story of unbelievably dense and moronic people who just keep jumping to the worst possible wrong conclusions to prolong the agony. It takes Emma three years to finally get together with Nicholas, and all that intense drama that separate them all that time is due to unbelievably dumb and contrived issues related to their, especially Emma's, refusal to communicate. Emma, the poor darling, is an example of a heroine who starts out unique and fun only to experience decay as the story progresses. By the last page, she is an imbecile while Nicholas is a stubborn and gullible fool. I started out liking the ensemble cast, even the designated villains, but by the last page I'm just glad to see the last of these village idiots.
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