Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"To Sir Phillip, With Love," by Julia Quinn

Alternate Title: Adventures in Babysitting

The Chick: Eloise Bridgerton. An extremely talkative, nosy woman, she kept herself free from marriage, and was rather proud to be a spinster - until her less attractive, less popular, schlubby friend Penelope got married without her. Feeling suddenly adrift, she impulsively flees for the country estate of her secret correspondent Sir Phillip Crane, to see if he might be right for marriage.
The Rub: She "forgets" to inform her mother, siblings, or Sir Phillip himself that she is coming.
Dream Casting: Persuasion's Sally Hawkins.

The Dude: Sir Phillip Crane. After being trapped in a dreadful eight-year marriage to a clinically depressed woman who eventually killed herself, all he wants now is another wife - preferably someone cheerful and spirited.
The Rub: He doesn't want a wife for himself, but rather a mistress of his household and a mother to his devil's-spawn children so that he can get back to his gardening and not have to think about anything.
Dream Casting: Elliot Cowan.

The Plot:

Eloise: Spinsterhood sounded so much fun when I could be with the ugly, unpopular friend I was certain would never marry! But now that she inexplicably has, I feel so alone and unloved! Woe is me!

Sir Phillip: Dear Eloise, please come and take my horrid children off my hands Please come and see if we will suit as man and wife. Since you're not married already by the age of 28 I'm going to expect super gratefulness I hope you will like me and mine. Love, Sir Phillip.

Eloise: Brilliant idea! So brilliant I WON'T TELL ANYONE. HI, Phil!

Sir Phillip: What the hell are you doing here? I mean, hello.


Eloise: Um, hello.


Sir Phillip: That was fast! Well, I'm off to continue my life now that you'll take care of everything.

Eloise and Sir Phillip's Less Horrid Children: Don't be a moron.

Sir Phillip: Oh, alright.

Eloise: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

2 Very Bad Parents (deceased)

2 Precocious Children

1 Very Ill Wife (deceased)

4 Outraged Brothers

1 Raging Fever (unsexy variety)

1 Black Eye

Several Mischievous Pranks

1 Secret Child Abuser

The Word: As I may have mentioned before, I wasn't planning on liking this book very much. I'd been warned by other readers that Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series begins its downhill slide right around Colin's book (which, upon reading Romancing Mister Bridgerton, I found to be more or less correct). Also, I thought Eloise's character in the previous books was incredibly irritating. So it's safe to say that I went into this book with a certain amount of wariness. Thankfully, the book was not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

This novel does make Eloise more sympathetic - but she still is a little irritating. Particularly her reason for inciting the incident of this book. It all began in Romancing Mister Bridgerton when Penelope (Eloise's friend) married Colin (Eloise's brother), which forced Eloise to confront some unflattering things about herself. Namely - she took pleasure in her own spinsterhood because she always figured she'd be in it with Penelope. Sure, Penelope's her friend, but let's be honest - she's never going to be married. I mean really. Look at her hair and her clothes. Not gonna happen.

But then, of course, Penelope did. Romancing Mister Bridgerton, while it had many flaws, did develop the interesting theme of taking people for granted, and it wasn't only Colin who had to realize the strength behind Penelope's shyness, but her BFF Eloise as well. Eloise honestly never expected Penelope to find marital bliss, and once Penelope did, Eloise found herself battling ugly guilt, envy, and loneliness. Guilt that she'd always subconsciously considered Penelope to be inferior to herself, envy that this assumption turned out to be untrue, and loneliness that now she is the solitary spinster in a sea of Smug Marrieds.

So, in To Sir Phillip, With Love, when Eloise receives a letter from a man with whom she's been secretly corresponding with for some time, and this letter proposes she visit his estate to see if they would suit for marriage, she impulsively jumps at the chance. However, she has to do so in a disappointingly TSTL fashion by intentionally not telling her mother or siblings where she's going, or telling Sir Phillip that she's about to arrive - and then has the nerve to act offended when Sir Phillip doesn't welcome her surprise appearance with rainbows and butterflies.

The first part of this book was difficult and implausible because her actions are completely, unarguably selfish. She literally vanishes without a trace (a perfunctory "don't worry I'm just being feisty" note gets lost in the mail), leaving the people who care about her very much with absolutely no idea where she's gone and then she shows up on Phillip's doorstep, interrupting his day and giving him no time to prepare - and why? So she can have an exit strategy. I'm not kidding - she makes everyone worry about her so that she won't lose face if she decides to back out of her plan. Thankfully, the negativity from this part of the novel is brightened by the fact that all this does come back to bite Eloise on the ass later on.

Anyway, Phillip is incredibly surprised when Eloise does show up - after all, she'd never replied to his letter when he'd sent it a month ago - but he decides to make the most of things. It's been a year since his previous wife died of a fever after trying to drown herself. His children, twins Oliver and Amanda, are raging out of control, but he's avoided most of his parenting duties out of a conviction that he's a naturally sucky parent (thanks to his own sucky parents) and would only cause more damage. However, the children do need an authority figure, so who better than a staid, cheerful spinster to be their mother and do all the things he would rather not?

While Eloise wasn't expecting to be hired on as a "babysitter with benefits," she decides to stick around and see how things go. While Phillip's children are indeed horrific little monsters, it's obvious to everyone except Phillip that they are doing intentionally ridiculous things in order to get his attention. However, their antics only convince Phillip that he's a terrible parent which causes him to spend less time with his children, meaning the children have to find worse ways to act out and the cycle continues.

Up until this point, the novel doesn't quite impress me. Eloise is selfish and spoiled, the children unrealistically portrayed with obviously telegraphed motivations, and Phillip is a dithering coward who hides from his children because he'll only screw them up more and would much rather hang out in his greenhouse and let other people do all the work.

However, once Eloise's brothers find out where she is and swoop in with enough Alpha Male Hero Aggression to power a large Canadian city, then the story starts getting good. Why? Because even with all of Eloise's stupid decisions, I started relating to her, dammit! While Eloise's decision-making abilities don't suddenly improve when her brothers arrive and clean up her mess, I started to understand why she was doing the things she's doing and believing how her mind worked.

I'll admit, if I'm anything like any of the Bridgertons, I'm like Eloise. I talk nonstop. I like gossiping (ahem, storytelling). Thanks to years of being a relatively isolated nerd in elementary and high school, I got used to thinking of myself first and often find it difficult to consider the feelings of others before my own. And when I'm forced into doing something thanks to my own mistakes, I'll do it because I feel guilty but it doesn't mean I'm not going to be pissy about it.

This is essentially how Eloise behaves once the Bridgerton boys show up. Understandably outraged with her, eldest brother Anthony puts an end to Eloise's will-she-or-won't-she marry Phillip by declaring that she unequivocally will, thanks to her unchaperoned time with the baronet. Eloise's actions were undeniably stupid, but by this point in the novel she's completely aware of how ridiculous she's been and how many people's she hurt and how this whole mess is entirely her fault. Still, she can't help but lash out towards Phillip now that she no longer has a choice in marrying him - even though she knows she only has herself to blame. By this point I found myself totally relating to her because I would have been just as petty and childish in that sort of situation.

As for Phillip - he was an interesting, if broadly drawn character. Most of his insecurities stem from his relationship with his late wife. While a contemporary reader can easily deduct that Phillip's wife suffered from debilitating clinical depression, to a nineteenth-century man like Phillip, he could only see that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make her happy. Every day of their relationship only convinced him more that he was a failure as a husband and he quickly converted this into a belief that he's a failure as a father as well. While described as physically imposing, Phillip is by no means a conventional Alpha Male - he's inarticulate, shy, cowardly in many respects, and exceedingly insecure. Most romance heroes have insecurities about themselves - more commonly, they believe they are unworthy of lasting commitment thanks to something in their past.

Phillip believes himself unworthy of pretty much any relationship - he doesn't even have many, if any, friends. There's a running theme throughout the book that Phillip is just too big to deal with other people. Not only big as in physically big, but big as in too heavy, brutish, and unrefined to deal with delicate matters such as formal affairs, women, and children. This is demonstrated physically by how he has to squeeze himself into tiny chairs for formal occasions or to talk to his children in the nursury, and emotionally in how he clutches and fumbles and loses his temper when trying to speak to Eloise or the twins. He's spent years convincing himself he's a lonely bull and regular society is just one big china shop, so he sequesters himself in his greenhouse for everyone's own good.

However, it's obvious that Phillip is an excellent match for Eloise. While Eloise is at first disconcerted that Phillip is not as talkative or articulate as he is in his letters (unaware that he spent days poring over every word), Phillip's terse and to-the-point nature renders him perfectly capable of calling Eloise on her bullshit and curbing her nonstop chatter. And from the other direction, Eloise's cheerful patter helps ease Phillip out of his self-imposed shell. Even while other aspects of the book didn't work for me, Julia Quinn did convince me that Phillip was just the man that Eloise needed and vice versa.
While this definitely isn't the best of the Bridgerton novels, it's not a terrible novel in itself, and it does do the character of Eloise justice. I was pleased to discover that despite being an officious little chatterbox, she's actually rather nice, surprisingly self-aware of her own faults (especially concerning her unkind surprise at Penelope's marriage), and capable of intermittent periods of good sense.


  1. Anonymous7:27 PM

    I do love the scene in the book when the four Bridgerton bros confront Philip.....and then get drunk I believe and Eloise is all "Wtf ::eyeroll::.
    -Silver Miko

  2. Anonymous11:17 AM

    I like the scene with the brothers too. I thought it was funny when they were talking about Lucy and the size of her chest. (I think the name was Lucy.)

  3. This was the last book in this series I read. While I enjoyed it well enough I just got tired of the whole Bridgerton family and their alphabet names.
    I know - dumb reason to stop reading her, but unless I'm finding them unputdownable, I get tired of series after four.

  4. Both Anonymouses --> Yeah, that was funny.

    Kristie J --> I don't have that option - the other three books are still on my TBR. -_-;;

  5. Anonymous9:35 AM

    "I don't have that option - the other three books are still on my TBR. -_-;;"

    Yeah, that's the danger of buying an author's backlist, though I do that too with author's I like.

    If you thought Eloise was annoying, I think Hyacinth and Gareth from "It's In His Kiss" will really annoy you.

    Some of Julia Quinn's pre-Bridgerton books might restore your opinion of her. "How to Marry a Marquis" and "Brighter Than the Sun" are both very good.

  6. Anonymous10:58 AM

    Argh...that should have been "authors" not "author's." I know better, but made a typo.

  7. I actualy liked this book quite a lot. I remember it was Phillip who made it for me, because he was so unlike the Bridgerton boys, and I found his angst heartbreaking. I'm glad you enjoyed it as well, and one of these days I will pick up the last three books in the series myself, as this is the last one I've read.