An Affair Before Christmas
by Eloisa James, historical (2007)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-124554-1

Firstly, reading An Affair Before Christmas is not recommended unless you have read Desperate Duchesses first and you had fun with that book. This is because the relationship of the "main" couple here is completely eclipsed by the ongoing relationships between two secondary couples.

Secondly, this is a very hard book for me to review without mentioning spoilers all over the place, so be a dear and stop reading now if you have yet to read this book but plan to in the near future. I may give this book a keeper grade, but that's due to my visceral reaction to the story. This is not a good standalone novel, it is more of a superlative example of how author Eloisa James can play my emotions like a virtuoso.

The main story line revolves around Perdita "Poppy" Selby and her husband the Duke of Fletcher. They have been married for about four years now. He's gorgeous, she's beautiful, and they met and had a romantic courtship in Paris... but oops, she's frigid in the bedroom. Fletch doesn't understand how he can breach her defenses (no pun intended), so the romantic courtship had since long morphed into a cold and icy marriage where both characters have no idea how to fix things up. When the story opens, Fletch breaks down and decides to seek a mistress for the first time, but alas, the wife catches him in a compromising position in a ballroom while he's, er, auditioning a potential candidate for the role, so to speak. He lashes out to her verbally in his embarrassment at being caught and his own anger at her for driving into seeking a mistress in the first place, leading Poppy to finally decide that her marriage to Fletch is beyond saving.

In doing so, Poppy eventually finds the strength to break free from her mother's negative influence and becomes her own woman, while Fletch, realizing that he loves Poppy despite everything else, does his best to win her back. I'd let readers discover how these two characters reconcile and how Poppy comes to her own. But I must say, the characters here could have been screaming at each other and jumping to ridiculous horrible conclusions about each other, but this time around, the author deftly avoid those traps and instead weaves some cute but credible emotional scenes and even humor into the story of Poppy and Fletch. The resolution is a little too dependent on the characters adopting a modern 21st-century sensibility with regard to the things that caused their marriage to go wrong in the first place, and the crazy mother thing is too over the top to be taken seriously, but in the end, this story works very well for me.

The other story line, involving Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, and her uneasy reconciliation with her husband Elijah. Now, I despised Elijah in the previous book, but here I am starting to see how he could be a decent match to Jemma after all. And yes, it's obvious here that the author is going to pair Jemma with Elijah, so I hope you aren't holding your heart out too much for Jemma to end up with Leopold, the Duke of Villiers. I'm disappointed, but Elijah here shows some tenderness toward Jemma, so I'm not too crushed by the development here. I especially like the scene where Elijah and Leopold finally have a meeting face to face, where they try to discuss their feelings in that quaint uncomfortable manner that men tend to adopt in such circumstances, heh.

And Leopold, oh Leopold. Okay, this is going to be embarrassing, so if you want to preserve your image of me as a dignified doyenne who inspired Judi Dench to play the role of the lead character in the movie Mrs Brown, I suggest you stop reading now. Because I have no choice but to admit here that by the last page of this book, I feel momentarily torn between writing love letters to a fictitious character and writing an email to Ms James to chide her for treating this beautiful man so cruelly in this story. Poor Leopold, near death after his duel in the previous book, summons Jemma to his side, but the message ends up in Miss Charlotte Tatlock instead. If you remember, Charlotte was this close to playing The Other Woman in the relationship between Jemma and Elijah. I suspect that Ms James initially wanted to pair off Leopold to Charlotte, but once Avon offered Ms James plenty of money to extend the series a little longer, she decides to jettison the plan and insert an infuriating development in the end where, after a beautiful developing friendship between Charlotte and Leopold, Charlotte suddenly (seriously) falls for Leopold's heir, leaving Leopold to once again being the man left in the sidelines.

But as I can't help feeling angered by how Ms James led me down that path only to have it blow up on my face, a bigger part of me can't help but to salute her for succeeding in the first place in making me react toward Leopold the way a crazy American Idol fan would throw herself over the TV for her favorite male contestant. Leopold is... beautiful in this story. The unwise part of me who has a fatal weakness for bad boys melts like ice in an oven as I see him slowly develop an admiration for Charlotte who refuses to take any of his nonsense. Charlotte and Leopold banter, tease, and connect with each other to the point that I actually feel crushed and really cheated when the author all of a sudden throws that "Charlotte has the hot for another guy she has met just two seconds ago" thing in the end.

I really like Leopold. If I were at an age where confessing such things isn't so embarrassing, I may even admit that I have an infatuation on him. He is mischievous, roguish, witty, and sarcastic. Oh, he has issues, but he doesn't pity himself and he certainly doesn't want anyone's pity - the most effective kind of bad boys that have me going all aflutter over. And I don't know how Ms James does this, but even as I know there is no way Leopold can die as he is Ms James' cash cow where this series is concerned, I actually tear up and go, "Oh no, please don't die, or I will have to commission a voodoo doll fashioned after Ms James and I hear it's expensive!" when poor Leopold really does seem like he will not live to see the next day. By the end of this book, I feel as if Ms James had put me through an exhausting yet exhilarating emotional rollercoaster ride. I laugh with Leopold, cry silly little schoolgirl tears over him, and cheer like an even sillier schoolgirl when he survives, only to have my heart broken when it's clear that Leopold lives only to lose a woman to another man... again.

Well played, Ms James. I am truly at her mercy where this story is concerned, and should the rest of the series didn't live up to its initial momentum, I will always have this book - and my dear, dear Leopold, so blue and so determined to remain standing with his head kept high - to remember. And for that, I'm grateful.

Rating: 96

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