Saturday, October 03, 2009
"When He Was Wicked," by Julia Quinn
Alternate Title: Just Friends
The Chick: Francesca Bridgerton Stirling, Countess of Kilmartin. Francesca married early, and for love - but luckily managed to get two awesome men in the bargain. Not only is her husband John the love of her life, but his cousin Michael is her rakish BFF.
The Rub: After her husband unexpectedly dies, she turns to Michael for comfort, only to find he's grown twitchy and distant. Why can't their friendship remain the same as it's always been? And why is Michael suddenly so hot right now??
Dream Casting: Little Dorrit's Claire Foy.
The Dude: Michael Stirling. He falls in love with Francesca Bridgerton at first sight - too bad she's all set to wed his cousin and best friend, John, the Earl of Kilmartin. Michael represses himself mightily in order to be Francesca's confidante, knowing it's the closest he'll ever get.
The Rub: John's death sends Michael reeling with guilt. Not only does Michael, the impoverished cousin, now inherit John's title and John's money, but now John's wife is free for the taking. How can he go after Francesca knowing John's death is responsible for all his good fortune?
Dream Casting: Brandon Routh.
Michael: I'm in love with Francesca Bridgerton! Who knew?
Francesca's Husband John: *dies*
Michael: DOUBLE SHIT.
Francesca: I need comfort!
Michael: I need about 5000 miles of personal space! *flees to India*
Four Years Later
Michael: I'm back!
Francesca: Let's be friends again!
Michael and Francesca: *smooch*
Francesca: I'll take that as a no? *flees to Scotland*
Michael: *follows* Screw conventions! Marry me!
Francesca: Can't we just have sex instead?
Michael: *sexx0r* Now can we get married?
Francesca: ... let me sleep on it. Baby, baby, let me sleep on it. Let me sleep on it, and I'll give you my answer in the morning.
Michael: I WANNA KNOW RIGHT NOW.
Francesca: ...Fine. *married*
Michael: *suspicious cough*
Francesca: Aaugh! Don't die! I love you!
Michael: Heh heh, it's only a head cold.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Repressed Rake
1 Wishy-Washy Widow
1 Inconveniently Dead Husband
Several Deadly Fevers (Unsexy Variety)
1 "Just Friends" Arrangement Doomed to Failure
3 Nice Mums
1 Quickie Wedding
2 Guilt Trips
The Word: I was a little worried about you, Julia Quinn. While I loved the first three books of your Bridgerton series, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton was a well-written dud that made a whiner out of a perfectly good scoundrel. And then came To Sir Phillip, With Love which had its cowardly man-beast hero and the spiteful, spoiled and shrewish Eloise - and two annoying children.
Needless to say, I approached When He Was Wicked with more than a little trepidation. I knew relatively little about Francesca, the third-youngest of the Bridgerton siblings, and I'm always a little hesitant regarding Love at First Sight stories. While they definitely can be written well and believably, more often then not they're contrivances based on beauty which don't impress me with a good opinion of the hero's taste.
I needn't have worried. The story begins by introducing us to Michael Stirling, society's Merry Rake. However, he's no Duke of Slut - as his cousin John holds the title of Earl of Kilmartin, Michael is simply Mister Slut, one who gets around but doesn't really have any marriage prospects, which is fine by him. Until he falls immediately, painfully, and completely in love with Francesca Bridgerton - a mere 36 hours before she's set to marry John.
For the next two years, Michael contorts himself into a variety of painful emotional positions as he maintains a close friendship with both John and Francesca while still hiding the embarrassing secret of his love for his cousin's wife. All unknowingly, Francesca twists the knife with her nosy insinuations into Michael's love life and her attempts to matchmake for him.
However, everything changes the day John goes to bed with a headache and doesn't wake up. While Francesca is overcome with grief, Michael is beset with an extra emotion: guilt. In the blink of an eye, he goes from impoverished gentleman to wealthy Earl, and as a bonus, the woman of his dreams is now up for grabs. Michael spent years wishing he could have Francesca for himself, and now he starts to wonder if he somehow wished for John's death - and that (as irrational as it may seem) John's strange and sudden demise might somehow be thanks to him.
This fractures what remains of his friendship with Francesca. When she comes to him for comfort for her grief, he doesn't trust himself around her and flees to India for four years. When he finally returns, he and Francesca find themselves on unstable ground. While she was incredibly hurt by what she sees as his abandonment of her, she still wants to return to the easy friendship they had of old. However, even she can deduce that something about Michael has changed, but he refuses to explain why.
Francesca, irritated and confounded and hurt by Michael's secrecy, proceeds to poke and provoke him, and when his self-control finally snaps, they both have to deal with the consequences.
There is an awful lot of set-up before Francesca and Michael finally confront their attraction head-on, but it's all well-written and very interesting to read. While Francesca is the Bridgerton in this book, I found the central focus of the novel to rest on Michael, who is an engaging character. He's caught in an agonizing tug-of-war for most of the book. While he wants Francesca, he can't have her. While he cultivates his rakish reputation to keep Francesca at arm's length, he's also hurt when she disapproves of his habits. His assumption of John's title, wealth, and property terrify him because he believes he's taking over John's life and erasing the traces of his cousin's existence in the world, and he fears making Francesca his will only complete the process.
Francesca is a harder character to identify with, since for the greater half of the book she is oblivious to Michael's feelings and mostly concerned with her own malaise and desire for a baby. She doesn't strictly get involved in the romance until about the halfway mark, but that's not to say the set-up's not there. She's "m'eh" about re-entering the Marriage Mart because she's convinced she'll never find a love like the one she had with John, but Ye Olde Biological Clock is ticking away. Meanwhile, she is still delightfully nosy and intrusive in regards to Michael's life, because while she doesn't know he's drowning in Unrequited Lurve, she does sense that something's off and she's very desperate for Michael to be happy.
However, once she does become aware of her own feelings for Michael, her development is subtle and sensitive. It's not only the spectre of John that hovers over her (although that's also important), but also the fact that loving Michael seems a tad incestuous. He was already a close, trusted confidante of hers while John was alive, so the fact that now she's experiencing feelings for him brings home the fact that she's not the same woman she was, and this troubles Francesca because she wonders if she's the same woman John loved, and whether that's good or bad.
For once, she's not John's Wife or John's Widow, and she wonders whether she's somehow dishonouring her husband by identifying herself separately from him. Yes, she can be a bit wishy-washy and for the greater part of the novel she prefers to run from her problems, but since Michael is always pursuing her, I never minded.
Once the romance really gets going, what Julia Quinn does - without any fancy bells or whistles - is provide an intriguing gender reversal. In this novel, Francesca's the one with the tragic past who indulges her physical desire with Michael while shying away from commitment (thanks to her tragic past) - something that's usually the hero's role. Meanwhile, Michael is the one who already knows he's in love and wants marriage and sex and babies right away, just as soon as he soothes Francesca's fears and insecurities (usually the female role).
However, there were some flaws. I know Julia Quinn is seen as a funny writer, and maybe I'm just overexposed to her writing style of late, but her humorous style just didn't click with me. It seemed tiresome - something you recognize is supposed to be funny but is so expected and familiar that it isn't.
Also, and maybe this is just a personal preference of mine, I was put off when Francesca started making comments about how Michael's performance in bed went above and beyond what John did. This just struck a painfully wrong cord with me. John wasn't a Demonized Impotent Evil husband from a cliched romance novel - he wasn't even a passable husband. He was supposed to have been a great husband whose death was a real tragedy rather than simply the removal of an obstacle between her and Michael.
Since most of the book remains consistant to the fact that John was a Heckuva Guy, it seems tacky and contrived when Francesca starts saying that Michael is better. Michael would certainly be different, and I wouldn't blame Francesca for comparing but - well, I guess when I read the book I was under the impression that Francesca was a woman who was lucky enough to find true love twice, rather than a woman who needed a genial Stepping-Stone Husband until she found her One True Love.
Other than that misstep, I thoroughly enjoyed When He Was Wicked. As is par for the course in a Julia Quinn novel, there are no tawdry wagers made, or disguises used, or huge misunderstandings - only real, compelling emotional obstacles.