Mrs Giggles reviews: When You're Desired by Tamara Lejeune
When You're Desired by Tamara Lejeune, historical (2012)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-2391-3
When You're Desired is in many ways a return to those fun historical romances of Tamara Lejeune before the author got... weird... in her last two books. This is still an ensemble comedy but there is a stronger effort to focus on the romance. There are some fun unconventional characters here, one of them being the heroine, but there is one huge drawback: the romance is as believable as the latest love story involving Taylor Swift and some random boyband member.
Celia St Lys is currently the most popular actress in town. She's talented, but more importantly to her legion of devoted fans, she looks really good while prancing around on stage in a pair of breeches or spilling out of a soaked dress. In this story, Celia is the star of a soap opera involving Dorian Ascot, the widowed Duke of Berkshire, his younger brother and our hero Simon, and various secondary characters as colorful as only theater people can be. Don't worry, this is not a love triangle - Celia's relationship with Dorian is pretty cute, although I can't say more about these two without going into major spoiler territory. Let's just say that there are family secrets, intrigue involving jealous stalkers, and more.
There isn't a strong singular story line here, just hilarious episodes strung together, and somehow, the whole thing works.
Celia is just adorable as the actress who actually revels in her fame. Oh, she knows that her looks will fade along with her star as each year passes, and she's actually working hard at the moment to make enough money so that she can go out at the height of her career without worrying about what happens next. It's so nice to see a heroine who knows how to save her money - Celia mentions how many popular actresses ended up bankrupt once they fell out of favor with the adoring masses, and she's determined not to be one of them.
Oh, and yes, Celia is a real actress, if you know what I mean. Of course, rumors of her sexual promiscuity is highly exaggerated, but our heroine isn't some unrealistically pure wide-eyed ingénue on the stage. She's had lovers before, and she is pragmatic to the core. Celia is also unabashedly a diva: she is fully aware of her beauty and its effects on men, and she is certainly happy to exploit it to the hilt. While Celia can be soft-hearted and sweet when it suits her, she's also self-absorbed in a charming manner. This makes sense: she is, after all, a superstar.
Dorian is also an interesting male character in a romance novel: he is a Momma's Boy type at first, and in a genre where the hero's devotion to his mother is almost always portrayed as a sign of weakness (compared to a heroine's often slavish and self-sacrificing devotion to her father, which is portrayed as an universal sign of virtue), it's quite startling to see him described in a pretty positive manner. Of course, he cuts the umbilical cord later - although one can make a case that he has merely replaced one bossy female figure in his life for another - but Dorian is never portrayed as a bumbling simpleton because of his ties with his mother. Instead, he's pretty adorable as this awkward fellow who has no clue how to be a player even if he wants to. He married very young, and now that he's a widower, he is flustered when his good looks attracted all kinds of attention from women. Eventually he learns to stand on his own two feet, and that particular journey is a pretty entertaining one, mostly because he and Celia make an adorable pair.
Oh yes, the hero. He's the weakest link and the main reason why this story eventually sinks like a stone. He's the younger brother who is supposed to be the more worldly one because he became a soldier at the age of 15, but goodness me, he behaves like an angry ten-year old boy for pretty much the entire book. He hates Celia. Whenever they are together, he's berating her, calling her all kinds of slurs and telling her that she is the biggest whore in the universe, and worst of all, he also tells various other characters that Celia is the biggest untrustworthy whore in the universe. Let me put it this way: Simon harbors the worst thoughts about Celia. Dorian and various male characters can see Celia's flaws as well as virtues, and even Celia's more lecherous fans treat her with far more respect that Simon, who seems to be running a race to see how many times he can cast aspersions on Celia before the story ends. Even very late in the story, he is coming up with yet another outlandish and ridiculous conspiracy theory to justify his belief that Celia is the biggest whore of them all.
It is only by the last chapter that, all of a sudden, he and Celia get married. Is the author for real? How can I believe that this coupling will last for even a week? Simon never respects Celia as a human being - I don't think he ever sees her as anything but the whore that he lusts after - and he constantly imagines that she's harboring a secret lover every time his back is turned. So... what is next? A happily ever after where he constantly rails at her for sleeping with every guy that looks at her behind his back?
On the bright side, Celia never apologizes or feels the need to defend herself against Simon's constant accusation of sleeping around. She doesn't see why she should, since what and who she does is none of his business. I like this attitude. This is why I can't imagine why she would even want to spend ten minutes with Simon, much less marry him. She has zero chemistry with him. I'd rather see her end up with Dorian or even that amusing hapless young admirer that happily lets her treat him like her make-shift bench when she's playing cards. Those men aren't the best husband material, but at least they don't view her as a lust-inflaming harlot and blames her for their own weaknesses.
Celia spends more time with Dorian than Simon for the most part of the book, which is why the story is actually entertaining despite Simon's toxic presence. Unfortunately, the focus shifts to the romance in the last third or so of the book, and by "romance", I mean "let's see how many over the top stupid paranoid conspiracy theories Simon can come up with with regards to Celia's evil perfidious ways".
When You're Desired, consequently, is a book that can be fun for a while, but by the last few chapters, I just want everything to end so that I don't have to endure another moment of the utterly artificial and unbelievable "love story" between Celia and Simon. The heroine is a fun change from the usual stereotypes that plague the genre, and there are many cute comedic moments here, but then there is Simon who makes a part of me feel that reading this story is a waste of time. Why does this have to be a romance? It would have been so grand if it had been straight-up comedy with Simon being crushed to death by a runaway circus elephant or something.