Friday, November 13, 2009

"Desperate Duchesses," by Eloisa James

Alternate Title: The Jemma/Beaumont/Villiers Variety Chess Hour (guest-starring Roberta St. Giles and Damon Reeve)

The Chick: Roberta St. Giles. Sick and tired of being embarrassed by her eccentric poet father, Roberta wants a suave, sophisticated gentleman who isn't a slave to his emotions - and the Duke of Villiers is just the one.
The Rub: She's set on marrying Villiers, but who says she can't get some nookie on the sly from her patroness' sexy brother Damon?
Dream Casting: Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude: Damon Reeve, Earl of Gryffyn. In town visiting the Duchess of Beaumont, he's almost immediately attracted to her new ward, Roberta.
The Rub: She's in love with the biggest Asshat in London. What's a poor single dad to do? Make out with her, of course!
Dream Casting: Simon Baker.

The Plot:
Roberta: I'm in love with Villiers!

Jemma: That's nice, dear. I'm in the middle of a chess game.

Roberta: I'm in love with Villiers!

Damon: You're a moron. An adorably sexy moron.

Harriet, Duchess of Berrow: I want revenge on Villiers!

Jemma: Huh, I just discovered a huge-ass stone to kill two birds with.

Villiers: I want to have sex with Jemma!

Jemma: You want to marry Roberta.

Villiers: I want to marry Roberta!

Roberta: YAY!

Villiers: Wait, no I don't.

Roberta and Damon: *sexx0r*

Villiers: Wait wait wait, yes I do!

Damon: Too late!

Villiers: WHORE!

Damon: *stabs with sword*

Villiers: ...exit stage left!

Elijah, Jemma's Husband: How many books until ours, darling?

Jemma: Just three more.

Elijah: DAMMIT!

Damon and Roberta: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Single Dad Hero

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

2 Angry Spouses

1 Big Pimpin' Poet Parent

1 Precocious Child

Several Games of Chess

1 Game of Strip Dominoes

Too Much Strawberry Champagne

The Word: This is going to be a bit of an unconventional review. When I first started reading Eloisa James (my first book of hers being Duchess By Night), I was confused. There are many fans of the Desperate Duchesses series on the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn messageboard, but there were so many people who were purported fans of certain characters who hadn't even had books yet (primarily, Jemma, Elijah, and Villiers). Reading Desperate Duchesses, the first book in the series, helped clear this up a bit, as I discovered that an Eloisa James series is a bit of a different creature from a regular romantic series.

Essentially, while Desperate Duchesses was a wonderful book, it wasn't that good of a romance. How so? Keep reading.

Roberta St. Giles, daughter of the Mad Marquess, is at her wits' end. Her father, an eccentrically romantic poet who lives with his courtesan, Mrs. Grope, has effectively scared off every hope of a suitor with his melodramatic and unpredictable behaviour. While her father is off humiliating himself at a ball, Roberta runs into the Duke of Villiers, a famously fashionable, elegant, and disdainful aristocrat. Instead of being repulsed, Roberta considers Villiers' coldness a turn-on: here is a husband who won't humiliate his wife with public theatrics. Here is a husband who won't rule with the whim of an artistic temperament. Essentially, Villiers represents everything that Dear Ol' Dad is not, and Roberta won't rest until she has him.

To achieve her goal, she leaves her dad in the country and repairs to the townhouse of Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, claiming distant kinship. Jemma, recently returned from Paris, is delighted to have a new project - as is her brother Damon, who is visiting with his illegitimate son, Teddy. Both are nonplussed, however, when they discover Villiers is the object of Roberta's affection.

Jemma still agrees to help Roberta, although she has her own agenda in mind. Her dear friend Harriet, widowed duchess of Berrow (and heroine of Duchess by Night), after revealing the horrendous treatment she received at Villiers' hands and the part he played in her husband's suicide, wants Jemma to help exact her revenge on the duke, as publicly and humiliatingly as possible. And what could be more embarrassing, or more public, than to trap the amoral rake into marriage? Jemma baits the trap by challenging the famously-competitive man to a chess match, although her plans go a bit awry when her estranged husband Elijah challenges her as well.

It's all a deliciously frothy drama stew, with some colourful and engaging characters and dialogue - but as a romance I don't think it meets the criteria. There is a lot going on in this book: along with Roberta and Damon (who tries to seduce her away from Villiers every chance he gets), we have the chess matches between Jemma and Villiers, lots of wonderfully written and layered repartee between Jemma and her husband Elijah, some chess between Jemma and Elijah, Elijah's flirtation with Charlotte Tatlock, and Villiers being Villiers (i.e. an ASS).

As an introduction to a series of novels, it's a marvelous and well-paced introduction. We get just enough meat with Harriet, Villiers, Jemma and Elijah to give us an idea of their stories and characters and tantalize us into wanting to read their eventual books, while at the same time providing an overarching narrative that concludes satisfactorily by novel's end.

However - the narrative is not Roberta and Damon's. The general definition, I've come to understand, of a romance novel is that the interaction between the heroine and the hero (or several heroes, if you're reading certain forms of a erotica) is the main story. However, as much as I enjoyed the development of Roberta and Damon's relationship, it's relegated to the role of a subplot, the sum of pages devoted to their romance barely enough to fill a novella. Roberta has a very simplistic reason for being "in love" with Villiers and she gets over it fairly quickly once Damon starts puttin' the moves on her. Similarly, it's never really made clear exactly what Damon finds so appealing about Roberta, at least to motivate how he falls in love with her in a relatively short amount of time. I can't help but feel their story would only have benefited from more "page-time," but alas - we must have another loaded argument between Jemma and Elijah!

Some more pages of explanation might have made the main characters more understandable as well. Roberta, at least in the first half of the novel, comes across as a bit of twit - only we learn later her dreamy-eyed longing for Villiers (despite his awful treatment of women and his hordes of unacknowledged spawn) is much more calculating - and I honestly can't decide if that's a good or a bad thing. Also, she cheerfully makes out with another dude an awful lot for a woman who's destined for someone else. To be fair, that's practically Damon's sole form of courtship. Not a lot of banter between these two - in some scenes, Roberta will be in the middle of a sentence about chess or poetry or something and Damon will out of the blue start nibbling her ear and Roberta will smile and play along and have a nice game of tonsil hockey but then, oh, what was I saying about poetry? And oh yeah I'm engaged. I appreciated how Roberta eventually discovered she possesses an inner romantic after all, but other than that her story didn't grab that much of my attention.

In this sense, Desperate Duchesses deviates from the traditional method of starting a romance series. Even in introductory novels, the romantic hero and heroine's relationship tends to come first, with the roles of the future characters and series-long mysteries or plots taking up space in the background. In the traditional sense, this novel fails, because even as it creates a wonderful and engaging set-up for future novels, it allows what is traditionally the main narrative to fall by the wayside.

But just as a book it's hella entertaining! How should I review it? Well, in this instance I'm going to have to give it two reviews.

As a book, regardless of genre, on its own merits of plot, pacing, and entertainment value: A

As a romance, where the Hero and Heroine should be IN OUR FACE and be examined in the greatest depth: C+.


  1. I really quite enjoyed this book and am about to finish my review of the entire series on BookThingo. I thought the exchange between characters was enteratining, tho you are right, a large part of that exchange is between the secondary characters. I really didn't enjoy the book after this one :P
    BTW am following you on Twitter as @tsinelas just so you aren't confused.

  2. the brief summary made me laugh.

    I liked this book, but much more for the J/E/V triangle and the sweet poetic father than the main couple of the story, who struck me as self-involved and immature. I liked the second book more, haven't gotten around the third, and loved the fourth best so far (When the Duke Returns). It was wonderful! Makes me hopeful that with each book, the series gets better (though have heard some mixed reactions to the last in the series).

  3. I like the alternate title!