Alternate Title: Desperate House(Party)Wives
The Chick: Ambrogina "Gina" Serrard, Duchess of Girton. Raised by the wife of her aristocratic father but actually illegitimate, she was married off at age eleven to the Duke of Girton's heir, Camden (then aged 18), to protect her reputation. Said heir quickly took himself off to the continent the day afterward, and she's been running the estate ever since.
The Rub: While she and Cam are on friendly terms, she decides that after 12 years enough is enough - she wants an annulment, and fast, so that she may marry her beau the Marquess of Bonningtion.
Dream Casting: Christina Hendricks.
The Dude: Camden William Serrard, Duke of Girton. He and his father were never on the best of terms, and after being forcibly married to an eleven-year-old, he severed nearly all ties to England and has spent the last twelve years as a sculptor in Greece.
The Rub: ...Nearly all ties - he's exchanged letters with Gina for years, and when he returns to grant her an annulment, he discovers she's grown up a good deal. As attracted to her as he is, he can't touch her - for her virginity is what will ultimately grant them an annulment.
Dream Casting: A younger Patrick Dempsey.
Esme, Gina's Slutty Friend: I hate my husband - he's in love with his mistress!
Esme's Biological Clock: ...tick tick tick tick....
Esme: Never mind!
Carola, Gina's Fat Friend: I hate my husband, because he thinks I'm too fat!
Carola's Husband: ...I never actually said that...
Carola: Never mind!
Gina: I actually like my husband. But that's beside the point - I want an annulment!
Camden, Gina's Husband: Really? *sexy puppy eyes*
Gina: Oh, all right - never mind!
Romance Convention Checklist:
2 Virgin Wives
1 Slutty Best Friend
1 Lacklustre (and Virginal!) Romantic Rival
1 Secondary Romance Between Aforementioned Slutty Best Friend and Rival
1 Curvy Character with Self-Esteem Issues
1 Secret Illegitimate Sibling
1 Blackmail Letter
2 Duplicitous Solicitors
3 Marital Reconciliations
1 Unfortunate Death
1 Bout of Hot Tub Sex, er, I mean Plunge Bath Sex
The Word: This is my second Eloisa James book - my first was Duchess by Night. While the stories are fundamentally different, the two novels do share some significant similarities - both have a large cast of (often unhappily married) characters and the majority of events take place at a large, riotous house party.
Gina, Duchess of Girton, is attending the party with her friends Esme and Carola. All three are married in theory but not in practice. Esme's husband is very publically in love with his mistress, Carola split with her husband after a disastrous wedding night and has since been too embarassed to attempt a reconciliation, and Gina's husband left for Greece without consummating the marriage the day after their wedding.
This, in case you haven't guessed, is a good thing: Gina was all of eleven when she and Camden, Duke of Girton, were married. While raised by her father and his wife, she is actually the product of an adulterous union with a scandalous French countess. When her family was threatened with a blackmailer, her adoptive mother and Camden's father arranged a quickie marriage between the two to protect Gina's reputation in society.
Few people know the truth of Gina's heritage, and her soon-to-be fiance, the Marquess of Bonnington, is one of them. Gina respects him for his steadfastness, loyalty, and impeccable manners. While their relationship at the moment is strained thanks to the Marquess' rigid adherence to the laws of propriety (read: he disdains showing affection or passion because it is indecent, and doesn't bother to hide his rabid dislike of Gina's scandalous friend Esme), she knows he promises a better marriage than the one she's had with Camden for the last twelve years. Which is why she's written to Camden to request an annulment.
Camden, since running away from home at eighteen, has led a thoroughly enjoyable and easy life as a sculptor in Greece. He bathes in the Meditterranean, makes a living by sculpting naked women out of pink marble, and, aside from exchanging some letters with Gina, has taken absolutely no responsibility for his wife or his estate. That's what estate managers and solicitors are for! While he's perfectly amenable to an annulment, his family solicitor urges him to wrinkle out the details in person, the better to spare Gina's reputation.
The two meet for the first time in twelve years, and sparks quickly fly as the house party keeps the two in close proximity. However, the looming matter of the annulment forces them to restrain their feelings as much as possible. The main element that supports the annulment is Gina's virginity, and as much as she grows to care for Camden, she suspects he's still a bit of an irresponsible dolt and does not like the idea of being permanently trapped in a marriage to someone who could very well peck her on the cheek and zip off to Greece for another twelve years. Camden, meanwhile, knows he's still a bit of an irresponsible dolt, and is mildly irritating and amusing, both, at the start of the novel as he tries to come up with ways to enjoy his marital benefits without being forced to endure a lifetime of marital responsibilities.
Eloisa James earns points from me for creating characters that sound downright annoying in theory but are actually pretty tolerable to read about. Camden is the prime example: while his wife personally handled all of his estates' paperwork for twelve years (while wistfully yearning for a family of her own), he spent that time chiselling marble tits and getting a tan. Camden is a guy who shirks responsibility at every turn, yet still tries to slip his wife a pinch and a tickle without really thinking about how she'll feel once he abandons her for Greece again.
At least at first. Somehow, however, this is adorable - and it only gets funnier once his playful "Gina's mine for now, might as well get my money's worth" mindset gradually morphs into the genuine Alpha Male "Gina's MINE - OTHER DUDES, HANDS OFF! GGGRRR!" - a claim to exclusive, permanent possession of Gina that finally takes into account the other elements that come with the Gina Serrard Package - that is, joining her in England, taking responsibility for his tenants and lands, and giving her the family she's longed for.
Carola is another character who threatened to be terribly gooey and contrived - the so-called "fat friend" freaked out when sex hurt the first time around and scalded her husband with a vitriolic and biologically inaccurate rant blaming it on him, and now sobs that she's too fat and proud to try and win him back by direct manoeuvres so she has to resort to emotional manipulation. She also cries at the drop of a hat. However, she isn't nearly as dippy and manipulative as I was expecting her to be, mainly because most of her attempts to whore for attention fail spectacularly.
Getting into this novel was a bit of a slow thing, however. There wasn't anything about this novel I disliked, but I never really felt emotionally engaged until past the halfway point. Similar to how I reacted to Duchess By Night, for the first several chapters I felt like I was dumped into a conversation halfway through - I was immediately made aware of the large number of characters and their intricate web of personal relations and had to wade through a sea of dialogue and set-up, looking for the few strands or details that would remain relevant throughout the rest of the novel. It mades for a pleasant atmospheric read, but I guess I just prefer the stories that establish a definite focus early on, go for the jugular, and hold on until the end. B+.