Monday, December 07, 2009
"An Affair Before Christmas," by Eloisa James
Alternate Title: Mrs. Hatelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Penis
The Chick: Perdita, Duchess of Fletcher, a.k.a. "Poppy." After years of trying and failing to be the perfect duchess to the Duke of Fletcher, when he calls their marriage a sham in public, she decides she's had enough of being perfect.
The Rub: Discovering her own person is nice and all - but her husband still loves her, and is so pretty. Can Poppy get over her fear of sex?
Dream Casting: Kirsten Dunst.
The Dude: John, Duke of Fletcher, a.k.a. "Fletch." After four years of awkward sex and distance from Poppy, Fletch is tired of being unable to please his wife.
The Rub: He changes his tune rather fast when Poppy deserts him - and allows his mother in law to play house in his ducal mansion.
Dream Casting: Aidan Turner.
Poppy: I love you!
Fletch: I love you! *married*
Four Years Later
Poppy: I hate my husband! He expects me to do - weird things!
Jemma, Poppy's BFF: Weird things?
Poppy: YES! He *shudder* wants to give me pleasure and - eep! - be my own person!
Jemma: Wow, that .... fiend.
Fletch: I hate my wife! She obviously doesn't notice or appreciate me! Our marriage is a joke!
Crowd of Regency Gents: He badmouthed his wife! *GASP!* No man in Georgian England has EVER been unfaithful to his wife EVER!
Poppy: Okay, I'm done.
Fletch: What do you mean, done?
Poppy: I'm tired of trying and failing to live up to your ridiculously high standards of individuality, independence, healthy sexual mindset and affection! I'm leaving you and striking out on my own!
Fletch: *raises eyebrow*
Poppy: Oh! Guess I'm fixed then! Let's have sex!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Orgasmless Wife
1 Seriously Sex-Starved Husband
1 "No Sex" Agreement Doomed to Failure
2 Cases of Cock-Fright
1 Screamingly Evil and Sexually Repressed Parent
1 Very Special Package Unwrapped Under a Fir Tree
1 Deadly Fever (Unsexy Variety)
1 Cross-Dressing Valet
1 Unintentional Tar & Feathering
The Word: When I read the first book in Eloisa James' Desperate Duchesses series, I had mixed opinions because although the book as a whole was vastly entertaining with Heyer-esque descriptions and banter (Jemma, in particular, reminded me of Fanny from These Old Shades - or was it the other way around?), the romance itself between Roberta and Damon ended up awkwardly abbreviated - I found they fell in love without a whole lot of development.
While the Holy Trinity of Jemma, Elijah, and Villiers are still present in An Affair Before Christmas, I'm happy to say that the central romance does get its due - but wow, is it strange.
An Affair Before Christmas uses Eloisa James' most trusted theme - the Marriage in Trouble. Poppy and Fletch married in Paris at Christmastime, deliriously in love. Four years later, however, little remains in common between them - and, as unpolitically-correct as this may seem, most of the problems are Poppy's fault. Or rather, Poppy's mother's fault.
Poppy's mum is a crazed harpy of a woman who, thanks to her own bitter resentment at being married to a mere mister instead of a peer, strictly raised her daughter according to her own ironclad rules of deportment, class distinction, fashion, and propriety so that Poppy could snag a Duke instead. She also imparted her own deep-seated terror and disgust of the penis to poor Poppy.
Thus, Poppy's spent four years living up to her mother's idea of the perfect Duchess: proper ladies don't encourage physical contact. Proper ladies don't bother their husbands with their own interests and feelings. And proper ladies never, ever enjoy sex. It's vulgar. Of course, poor deluded Poppy believes she does this all for Fletch's benefit, and has no idea why Fletch is perfectly miserable. Fletch is not only perfectly miserable, but incredibly horny - he's still very much in love with Poppy, but the fact that she doesn't enjoy his amorous attentions hurts him very deeply.
In a fit of sexual frustration, he tries flirting with a stranger at a party, only to be interrupted by his wife and her friends. Losing his temper, he rails about the barren state of their marriage in the middle of the party, humiliating Poppy. That's when our poor, precious, puddingheaded heroine snaps. She's tired of being a failure, tired of catering to Fletch's too-high standards and filthy sexual kinks (he wants sex *gasp!* on top of the bedcovers with the candles lit), and tired of working so hard for a man who obviously isn't satisfied with her and wants her to be someone she isn't. So she decides to leave Fletch and go live at Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont's house, leaving her husband to the not-so-tender mercies of her criminally insane mother.
The one annoying part of this story is that it's all too clear that Fletch's "standards" and "kinks" aren't the problem at all - only Poppy's traumatizing upbringing. Eloisa James does a good job of showing us that it's not Poppy's fault, exactly - but most of the fixing of the relationship has to come from her development and transformation rather than Fletch's. An Affair Before Christmas is essentially Poppy's book. Most of the romance section of the book details how Poppy tries to become an independent person, nurture her own interests (she loves science, as it turns out), and establish her own boundaries.
She was a very difficult character to like, at least at first. She starts out so oblivious and repressed. She wails about how Fletch doesn't love her even though she refuses to tell him anything about her, just assuming he won't be interested. A lack of communication is definitely right up there with Poppy and Fletch's main problems. I'll admit, one of my biggest problems with the book was that I found it hard to believe that after four years, Fletch and Poppy still hadn't had a significant talk about their expectations and sexual desires. I understand that Poppy needed a good kick in the pants to finally explore herself as an independent person, but what was going on in those four years where they basically revealed nothing about each other?
Fletch, as a romance hero, is very charming and not an alpha male (Eloisa James tends to mostly avoid Alpha Males, to my everlasting gratitude), but his most obvious role in the novel is to act surprised (and eventually delighted) by Poppy's burgeoning personality, and resist the urge to club Poppy's mum to death with a giant phallic sculpture a la Clockwork Orange. He's unabashedly in love with Poppy for the entire book, so there's no issue or revelation on that score.
However, he does undergo a subtle development that I quite enjoyed - at first, most of his frustrations come from the fact that he's not gettin' any. This leads to his flirtation with a few other women - he thinks the sex is what's missing from his marriage, rather than Poppy's wholehearted involvement. Once Poppy flees and her off-her-nutter-mother takes her place, Poppy's mum actually encourages Fletch to take a mistress, believing once he starts torturing another woman with his Trouser Snake of Evil, he'll only subject Poppy to the Dreaded Devil's Instrument when he absolutely has to. The separation only proves to Fletch that love can be independent of sex (although the two still go nicely together), to the point where his longing for Poppy's mere presence is so strong that he's willing to give up sex forever just to have her around. Awwww.....
Uh, meanwhile, Elijah is still Elijah and Jemma is still Jemma - although her constant, "Oh don't mind me I'm so scandalous and immoral and don't have a thought in my head except for chess and I'm TOTALLY not in love with my husband, la dee da" monologuing is becoming a bit grating. Villiers spends most of the novel in a delirious fever, which I suppose causes him to regret some of his Asshat behaviour, and more importantly he starts a will-they-or-won't-they romance with Charlotte Tatlock (a secondary character from Desperate Duchesses) that disappointingly takes a sharp left turn at the end - apparently when the author realizes that Villiers is her most flawed (read: interesting) character and thus must be kept from romantic bliss until the last four books are pumped out. Eh. The Holy Trinity were interesting enough, and this time around they didn't suck all the life from the central romance.
All in all, this novel contained all the gleeful period sparkle Eloisa James regularly brings to her romance, thankfully accompanied this time by a solid romance and enjoyable characters. While there were a few hitches - and, yes, I still found the heroine a wee bit irritating - it's still a good addition to the Desperate Duchesses series.