Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Romancing Mister Bridgerton," by Julia Quinn

Alternate Title: Pump Up the Volume, Regency-Style!

Spoiler Warning: Okay, I always warn about spoilers on my blog, but this one has a doozy that effects the previous three books of the Bridgerton series. If you're just getting into the series now - THIS HAS SPOILERS THAT AFFECT YOUR BOOKS. You have been warned. That is all.

The Chick: Penelope Featherington. Thanks to various personal problems over the years (weight issues, ugly dresses, skin problems, and shyness), she remained a perpetual wallflower and has accustomed herself with surprising contentment to the life of a spinster. Now twenty-eight and firmly on the shelf, she still has a crush on Colin Bridgerton, but believes nothing could ever come of it.
The Rub: One day, she stumbles upon Colin's private travel journals - and discovers they're actually good. Her passionate approval of them surprises Colin and makes him pay closer attention to her ... which puts secrets of her own at risk.
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Colin Bridgerton. Renowned for his rascally, charming ways and frequent travels out of England, he could charm the petticoats off of half the ton with his famous crooked grin. However, he feels strangely unfulfilled, until the woman he's known for years discovers and praises the writing talent he's suppressed.
The Rub: He's more used to taking Penelope for granted than for falling in love with her, and has to reevaluate his entire estimation of her when she reveals hidden reserves of wit, fire, and talent.
Dream Casting: Zachary Levi.

The Plot:
Penelope: Woe is me! I'm a spinster with an unrequited love!

Colin: Woe is me! I'm handsome, rich and popular, and yet strangely unfulfilled!

Penelope: Oh come on. Suck it up and grow a pair, why don't you?

Colin: *blink blink* You have pretty lips and boobies. And a spine! WHY HAVEN'T I NOTICED THAT BEFORE?

Penelope: Beats me! Oh, and I'm Lady Whistledown, too.

Colin: OMGWTFBBQ??! (copyright Smart Bitches) Ahem, well, that doesn't matter, because I love you!

Penelope: Oh good! I love you too!

Colin: Thanks to your support, I'm publishing my travel journals!

Penelope: And thanks to your love, I'm writing my first novel called - The Wallflower.

Colin: W-what...no - NO, it can't be!

Penelope: Oh yes it can - on top of being Lady Whistledown, I am also secretly *rips off disguise* LISA KLEYPAS!

Colin: AAAAAAAAAUGH!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Rascally Rake

1 On-The-Shelf Spinster

1 Secret Talent

1 Secret Identity

1 Bitchy Blackmailer

1 Nosy BFF

1 Not-Very-Supportive Mother

1 Obvious Sequel Set Up (Eloise and her mysterious letters)

The Word: Back when I set out to read Lord of Scoundrels, one Anonymous Commenter warned me off it, and suggested I read Romancing Mr Bridgerton instead. Both novels, written by excellent historical romance authors at the peak of their abilities, have been hyped to high heaven. I already have high regard for what I've read of the Bridgerton series, so when many commenters and reviewers said they thought RMB was the best of the bunch, that notched my expectations for this novel significantly higher. Did it measure up? Read on.

Each Bridgerton novel I've read has had a cohesive theme that drives the romance, and RMB is no exception. Essentially, this novel is about taking things and people for granted. This theme is particularly suited to this story because the characters are ones that readers of the first three books should be familiar with: Colin (the rascally younger brother who pops up in all three books to cause mischief) and Penelope (the tragicomic best friend who hasn't a hope in hell of attracting a man because she's either fat, pimply, shy, or wearing a dress in a horrid colour). These two characters are not only known to Julia Quinn readers, but they're known to each other - or at least, they think they know each other.

When RMB begins, however, Penelope's Season days are far behind her: she's now content to be a twenty-eight-year-old spinster happily on the shelf right next to her BFF Eloise Bridgerton (also a spinster, albeit by choice rather than circumstance). Despite her utter lack of prospects, she's far happier now that no one expects anything of her than she ever was during her Seasons. The only fly in her ointment is her everlasting love for Colin. Oh, Colin, Colin, Colin. He's so dreamy and perfect and popular and handsome. But someone so pretty and flawless could never fall for an ugly duckling like me!

Penelope's thoughts tread a lot along this path until she accidentally comes across Colin's private travel journals, and discovers they're actually quite good. She also discovers, when Colin comes in and catches her, that he never had any intention of showing his journals to anyone and, despite his charming behaviour during social engagements, is as perfectly capable of throwing a temper tantrum as anyone else. While Colin takes great pleasure in his journal, he never planned to show it to anyone else, suspecting they might just emptily praise him because he's a popular Bridgerton rather than for his actual merit, and what he's always wanted ever since he can remember is to have an actual purpose in life other than to be popular and well-liked...

Wait, wait, wait - did I just accidentally pick up An Offer from a Gentleman? Isn't Benedict Bridgerton supposed to be the sibling with the artistic talent he's kept private, who, as a younger son, feels dissatisfied with his lack of definable purpose and identity? Am I having literary deja vu?

As it turns out, dear readers, I am not - Colin, more or less, has the same personal problems as Benedict. Only he's distressingly whinier and less subtle about it.

Of course, his hissy fit breaks Penelope's shiny perfect picture of him. He's a Bridgerton, and for years Penelope just assumed he lived a charmed life of oblivious happiness. She'd never thought he could be pissy, or petty, or jealous, or whiny. SURPRISE! And of course, when Penelope finally speaks her mind and praises his writing skills while at the same time giving him a scathing "I wish I had your problems, so quit your bitching" speech, Colin finds himself forced to reevaluate his image of Penelope that he's taken for granted all these years.

Their relationship takes another turn when a popular society matron offers a thousand pounds to whomever can unmask Lady Whistledown, a popular anonymous gossip columnist who's offended/entertained the ton for a decade without ever revealing her true identity. When a mean-spirited attention whore claims that she's Lady Whistledown, Colin catches Penelope in the act of delivering Lady W's final column that refutes the bitchface's claim.

Cue a chorus of "Whaaaaaaaaaat? Penelope is Lady Whistledown? No WAY!" Way. I had to admit I had a really hard time believing it at first. Julia Quinn set herself the incredibly difficult task of conveying events from Penelope's point of view without revealing that she's Lady Whistledown, even during scenes where Lady Whistledown's identity is the primary focus of the conversation. I actually found myself flipping back to all these scenes to see if she slipped up. While the writing's not necessarily on the wall, there are clues, albeit subtle ones, and most of these spring from Penelope's behaviour and how she reacts to certain comments.

Anyway, as believable or unbelievable as this may be, it does open up some interesting territory in RMB's romantic development. Colin and Penelope have known each other for so long that each has become the other's constant, in a way. To Penelope, no matter how dreary or humiliating her life became, she could count on Colin to always be confident and cheerful with a roguish grin on his face. Colin, meanwhile, seemed content to consider Penelope a particularly well-spoken and tasteful piece of window dressing.

Penelope's rude awakening that Colin has insecurities and asshat tendencies is not much of a jump, but Colin's reevaluation of Penelope is something to see. Coming to grips with the idea that Penelope might have feelings and opinions that actually matter is trying enough on the poor chap, but to discover that Penelope is not only capable of higher brain function, but is better at something than he is, is a new experience entirely.

Julia Quinn mines fertile (and rarely tilled) ground as the true impact of Colin's newfound love for Penelope sinks in. Unlike his married siblings, he doesn't have the chance to make a first impression, or a second, third, or thirty-third impression. He doesn't possess the luxury of showing only his best side, or editing his background. He doesn't get the meet-cute, or the misunderstanding, or (obviously) love at first sight. Realization dawns on him that he's let ten years' worth of chances with her go by, and that she already knows the best and worst of him, so the only chance he has now is to be taken as he is. He also has to come to terms with his misplaced pity for her. Frankly, there were times when thought of her as Poor Little Penelope (mainly because she often intentionally acts like Poor Little Penelope) - but now that he's head over heels in love with Poor Little Penelope, what does that make him?

That being said, I found RMB to be nowhere near as entertaining as An Offer from a Gentleman. The main (or, I should say, first) reason for this is that Colin - who was such a uniquely mischievous presence in the previous novels - comes off as terribly uninteresting in his own book. He was so much fun in the previous novels, and when the backcover blurb promised that he had a "secret," I was psyched. Yeah! Mischievous man-boy Colin has a secret! And it's...

A secret diary? Really? Who are you, Anne Frank? And a hidden artistic talent? What, again? Colin's predicament and sense of poor-little-rich-boy ennui is so obviously similar to Benedict's, and so much more poorly written, that it completely deflates the image built up for him by the previous books. At the very least, he deserved his own hang-up! I mean, in his extensive travels, he could have come across any number of problems - a rare disease, witnessing a crime, bankruptcy, a secret baby, anything but the same thing that plagued the hero in the book right before this one! It deeply disappointed me that a character who was such a memorable fixture in the previous books couldn't have an inner conflict uniquely suited to his character.

And on top of that, I never found Penelope's personality to be in sync with that of Lady Whistledown. Whistledown's columns opened every chapter of the Bridgerton novels leading up to this one, and they're all sarcastic, witty, and mature. Penelope, on the other hand, comes off as a marshmellow with sparkly eyes and chipmunk cheeks who uses the words "magical" and "soul" far too often. The idea, of course, behind Lady Whistledown is the Pump Up the Volume-esque idea that Lady W says all the things that Penelope is too shy and tongue-tied to say herself, but I didn't always buy it. Even when she's being "lively," she's a little too gooey for my taste, and a shade too cutesy to convince me she's responsible for Lady W's no-nonsense prose. I often found her actions, thoughts, and behaviour corresponded with someone much younger than she's supposed to be.

Also, the secondary characters (read: the other Bridgertons and their significant others) threaten to overcrowd important scenes with banter that becomes inane rather quickly (imagine two pages of a discussion on the metaphorical significance of glue). I kinda wanted to smack Hyacinth Bridgerton, but she wasn't nearly as irritating as Eloise, who comes off a shrill gossipy hypocrite who latches on with the unwanted tenacity of a bulldog to reveal other people's secrets but gets all huffy and offended when people ask after hers.

However, there were many good points to this novel. Again, Julia Quinn focuses more on dialogue and relationship dynamics than wacky twists of fate - when Colin stops navel-gazing and Penelope forgets to be sugary, their interactions are fairly entertaining. I enjoyed how ten years worth of taking each other for granted hampered their relationship, and how they have to overcome it. Penelope, without being a total dishrag, is so used to being socially rescued by the Bridgertons that she automatically assumes most of Colin's initial romantic overtures are performed out of pity. Colin, himself, is used to pitying Penelope.

Julia Quinn, thankfully, doesn't perform the mistake that many lesser authors have done by retconning this with convenient "Oh, I never really pitied you, I could always sense the spirited fire of your fiery spirit that you kept hidden" bullshit. Colin actually did pity Penelope and take her for granted for years and Quinn doesn't sugarcoat it or try to write it off, but instead uses it to spice his growing conflict as he realizes how incredibly wrong he was. His realization leaves him with real guilt and horror at how many times over the last decade he could have lost her forever without ever knowing what he could have had, and this inspires him to rather delightful feats of romantic forcefulness - particularly during my favourite scene in the novel, where Colin tries to announce his engagement to Penelope in front of her family, and finds this a more difficult task than he expected.

However, I'm sorry to say that my dear Anonymous Commenter is going to be very disappointed in me - I loved Lord of Scoundrels (and she did not), and, unfortunately, I wasn't overly impressed with Romancing Mister Bridgerton. While Julia Quinn's writing style is still lovely and some memorable scenes had me giggling, I had certain expectations for this novel that (whether they were fair or no) weren't met. Much of Colin's conflict felt like a re-tread of An Offer from a Gentleman (a book whose status as the Best of the Bridgertons remains unchallenged), and what original conflict remained wasn't enough to sustain my interest in the entire novel. B.

9 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:54 AM

    It's ok...people have different tastes. But Romancing Mister Bridgerton WAS the #1 book last year in the top 100 poll on the EJ/JQ BB. ;)

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  2. A lot of people love this one but I didn't like it at all, at all. Up until RMB I quite enjoyed Quinn's books, but this one did her in for me and I've rarely read her since.

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  3. Anonymous11:35 AM

    Kristie... REALLY? REALLY? RMB was a lot better than her later books. Her last 4 haven't been very good.

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  4. Anonymous --> Well, like I mentioned in my review, I can understand why general fans of the Bridgertons and Julia Quinn would like RMB - Penelope and Colin are like the Ross and Rachel or Chuck and Sarah. Everyone knows they'll wind up together sooner or later, and with appearances in the three previous novels it just fed the fire.

    To me, I didn't think it met expectations.

    Kristie J: I've got a lot of Julia Quinn books on my TBR, just not all Bridgertons - the scenes are beginning to get quite crowded. But her "Secret Diaries" book sounds good, as does her "Lost Duke of Wyndham"

    Anonymous --> that does not bode well for the other four Bridgerton books on my shelf. -_-;;.

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  5. Penelope: Oh yes it can - on top of being Lady Whistledown, I am also secretly *rips off disguise* LISA KLEYPAS

    I haven't read any Lisa Kleypas so I'm not sure what this means. Is this book similar to one written by Kleypas?

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  6. So I am way behind the time in commenting here but I got to your blog from a recommendation and immediately wanted to look this book up because it is sort of a totem for me as to why I struggle with romance. I agree with your review completely. I had enjoyed the first few books of the series and my favorite sibling-in-the-wings was definitely Colin - I could not wait to get to his book. When I picked it up and saw he was paired with Penelope the anticipation of awesome was huge. And then it was so not what I was expecting or wanting. Suddenly, funny, impish Colin turned into Alpha Male who is secretly tortured by being too popular and not being taken seriously. The "conflict" used to spur the book felt false to me. But the Alpha Male thing bothers me the most. I mean I get why that's attractive but it's not my idea of a perfect romance hero. I prefer Arthur to Lancelot and I feel like most romance heroes are Lancelots. And I'm pretty sure I'm not making any sense:) But thanks for the great review!

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    1. You know, I forget which of my readers pointed this out (I think it was Willaful) but she noted that certain romance writers really only write one "type" of hero - while they may have all sorts of dudes as secondary characters, their heroes all share particular traits due to lazy writing. As a result, when interesting secondary characters get their own books, they often get rewritten, mysteriously, as conventional Alphas who are far less interesting.

      That's what happened to Stephen in Judith McNaught's UNTIL YOU. He was actually a pretty nice guy in a completely horrid book in WHITNEY MY LOVE, but when he gets his own book, suddenly he's a misogynist ass (because slut-shamy asses are the only heroes Judith McNaught writes).

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  7. Anonymous1:34 PM

    yeah i was disappointed with this one. i loved the idea of the pairing... the execution, not so much.

    mostly because colin, like you mentioned, pretty much turned into his older brothers (anthony's hissy-fitness, benedicts emo talentness) instead of retaining his unique sparkle.

    basically, colin acted like quite a dominating bastard at several points, which i forgave in anthony because it's anthony's primary character trait towards pretty much everyone he cares about (and i just shrug it off as eldest brother syndrome)

    whereas with colin it really, really irritated me especially because in all the other books he's the one maintaining a sense of humor when everyone else is mad. or rather, when he's mad, he hides it behind a smile. more than once, characters commented on how he's more dangerous than he seems. i would have liked to see him behave in character with himself in the other books, sly, clever, in control. it would have also made him a less bloody typical hero.

    (the epilogue for "the viscount who loved me", in which colin and penelope make an appearance together, captured much better what i would have liked to see in this pairing)

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    1. Exactly! I wish they'd given him his own inner conflict.

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