09 August, 2012

Review: The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

I suppose instantly forgettable isn't the best way to describe a book I plan to recommend. Here's the difficulty. I read The Ugly Duchess a week ago and had some fourth act problems with it. I decided to wait a few days before writing the review. In the interim I completely forgot what my problems were. I also forgot everything about the book itself. Scanning early reviews didn't trigger any recollections so I read the darn thing again. I still like it and I still have issues with the fourth act.

The Ugly Duchess is a forced marriage of deception tale. Theo is the sort of gawky and insecure young heroine romance loves. She's smart and ready to rebel. Her mother dresses her inappropriately, her guardian taps into her funds. In an effort to impress a young man she admires Theo reveals a caustic way with words. Of course this will (eventually) lead to her finding out the price of those words as she earns her own moniker (and the book gains it's title). Remember ladies, be nice or be silent.

Theo's bank account has been raided by her guardian, the father of our soon to be Duke, James. James must marry Theo to obscure his father's crime. As it happens, James and Theo are already in love yet unaware of it. I'll give Eloisa James that because the portrait of our hero and heroine as young teens is so pitch perfect. Everything is emotional. Everything is unforgivable. Everything is the most important thing to happen to anyone ever. They romp about like the puppies they are, reveling in their new freedom from their parents, eager to grab the reins of their lives. Everything will be different now. Of course, parents are not so easily dismissed. The reins of life can be hard to control. Soon the bubble bursts. Theo is left abandoned, alone but for her mother (she apparently had no friends but James) and her money. She sets herself to rebuilding his estates and repressing everything about herself that James loved. (It defies logic, but there it is.)

James falls in with pirates. At first it's just for the thrill of it but later (when he needs to make things right with Theo) he reveals his true calling was freeing slaves. Because of course it would be. Never mind that when he decides to embark on piracy it's nothing at all to do with slavery. Both Theo and James are afraid to face their true selves, afraid to demand their true lives because of the self inflicted shame they carry. A major theme of The Ugly Duchess is life after parents. Who are you without your parents to appreciate? Who are you without your parents to defy? Who are you when death removes the mirror you've viewed yourself in? For both James and Theo death has been a major force for personal reinvention. We rejoin James and Theo as a couple when seven years have passed. Theo is preparing for her new life as a legal widow. James has had a sudden revelation and returned. Instead of the warm and passionate woman he left, James finds a repressed woman who finds the idea of sex unpleasant.

Here we fall into the fourth quarter abyss. I feel as though Eloisa James loses interest in her books at the close. They either dip into the farcical or speed to the end. Here, when James and Theo reunite as different people with an ocean of life experience and pain between them, is where the story should begin. Here, with no desire for sex or children, with no true excuses for abandonment, in the ashes of their youth, is the meat of the tale. Except it isn't. Theo goes from frigid to fire with haste. It's a high school reunion. The star couple has an Appletini or six and shack up for the rest of the event. The love they had for each other as children is pasted onto the adults they became then used as an excuse to wipe away the intervening years. One moment a character doesn't ever want children, the next they adore babies. One moment the thought of sex inspires self contempt, the next it's bloomers in the bushes. Add to that a closing chapter with the requisite show of brute force in defense of Theo's honor (violence - so hot and manly) and it's like a hundred other books.  Which is a shame. The first 2/3 of The Ugly Duchess is wonderful enough to still make this a four star read for me.


  1. Totally with you on this one - I was convinced for the first half of the book that it'd be my favorite Eloisa James ever. Then it fell apart, and I spent the last half sad for both characters and more than a bit incredulous. I mean, really, all it takes 36 hours to reconcile seven years of hurt?? I've read the ending twice already, and I'm still conflicted...

    1. If it didn't qualify as "Better than recent Eloisa James ending" it would have disliked it more. The sort of life they've lived has to have fundamentally changed them, so the quick resolution seemed... absurd.