Jacqueline's Reviews > Desperate Duchesses

Desperate Duchesses by Eloisa James
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Roberta wants Villiers, Villiers wants Jemma badly but she, Jemma, who is also the sister to Damon, and he, Damon, wants Roberta while she, Roberta, only wants Villiers, though Villiers, remember, only wants Jemma, while she, Jemma, is estranged in marital hell with her husband, Elijah, who he, Elijah, pulled Ass-Hat-Number-Four by cheating on her, Jemma, years ago but who she, Jemma, still loves, but who he, Elijah, was also once friends with Villiers, who he, Villiers, only wants Jemma, and not Roberta, but who Damon, the brother to her, Jemma, does. Got that? Yeah.

To say that Eliosa wasn’t channeling Shakespeare in this novel would be the lie of the century. Without question, this book is a sort of homage to the concept of the divine comedy/tragedy. Considering the fact that the book opens with an insta-love connection, whereupon Roberta meets Villiers (the pseudo-bad-guy-but-not-really character) for the first time in November of 1780, and immediately decides she must marry him, my first thought was...”Romeo and Juliette, anyone?” After this wiz-bang meeting, comprising of the prologue, the book dashes off to the next scene. Well, sort of dashes, considering such takes place with the beginning of Chapter One, which starts in April 1783…nearly three years later! And, frankly, that's only the start of my problems to this book.

Here it is, my Biggest Issue of All the Issues in This Issue-y Book; no direct emotion exists on page with Roberta or Damon. While there is lust peppered throughout between the two lead characters, at no point did I feel as though they were emotionally connected. This becomes exemplified on page 333, whereupon not only is the ending of the novel coming to arise, but the two characters have had a plethora of interaction and boinking. During the “river boat” initial climax scene, Roberta makes a half-hearted attempt to learn about her lover. This is even stated by her,

‘“What do you do all day?” she asked impulsively. She wanted to know everything about him: what he ate for breakfast, and what he named his mare, and where he met his friends.’

Less than half a page passes, and this story thread is immediately dropped! One or two sentences of Damon talking about himself arises, and despite previously telling herself she was interested in learning about her lover, Damon calls Roberta out on being bored with his reply! (Of which, she totally was.) And then…you guessed it…more boinking.

I think my second problem is more of an explanation of why the emotional connection between Roberta and Damon was nonexistent in this novel. Throughout the course of the story, Eloisa ping-pongs between Roberta’s POV with Damon and life and all that jazz, and the telling of the chess game and interplay between Jemma and Villiers. Even though Eloisa does a brilliant job at meshing these two stories together in a believable way, I still feel that, despite such masterful story-telling, this turned out to be a big hindrance to this as a romance. The emotional aspects of the novel went unmet, I feel, because so much time was spent developing the dynamic and plot-drive of Jemma and Villiers, there was almost no time for the emotions of the leading couple to ferment. As a direct result of this limited time, the only way to transmit the relationship of Roberta and Damon was via lust and sex.

While it’s true lust and outward attraction are an integral part of love, they are not the key motivators. Lust is physical while romantic love is emotional, and one can’t experience romantic love until identity of the significant other is learned or, at the very least, broached. Such knowledge doesn’t have to be all encompassing, either. Even just learning the basics about personalities, interests, hobbies, or passions would have been sufficient for me to buy into the romance being real between these two people. Hell, even just the character’s learning or broaching ONE of these subjects about the other would have been nicely believable. Ironically, this is even as much as stated by Jemma on page 369 during the dueling scene at the end of the novel. When Jemma tells Roberta that Damon does indeed play chess, Roberta states she had no clue, to which Jemma promptly replies, "Have you talked of nothing, all this time you spent in bed together?" And, most appallingly, Roberta admits just that!

Along the same lines of thought, specifically the lack of basic identity sharing/learning causing the lack of emotion on page, arrives the issues I had with the actual characters in this story. As said before, I did find all the characters of Desperate Duchesses believable, somewhat enjoyable to one degree or another, and, most importantly, three dimensional. Eliosa took an interesting route by creating characters that were, in many respects, unlikeable, un-relatable, or just plain boring. I say “interesting” because I’m willing to submit that Roberta and Damon were, in fact, naturally boring. As in life, some individuals are fascinating, some are not, so I’m not of the opinion this was sloppy or lazy writing on the author’s part. But, still, the two most important people of the book, Roberta and Damon, were unquestionably the most uninteresting characters I’ve ever read before, in my entire life. As boring and cardboard as Damon was, Roberta was as dislikable and irritating. Damon had no personality to speak of whatsoever, while Roberta came off as being air-headed in decisions she made, with Damon making no decisions, except to get an erection every time Roberta was within grabbing distance. I would say that Eloisa utilized the “tell rather than show” method for detailing Damon’s attributes, but the sad reality is that such didn’t even occur. At no point was the reader given any hints into just who Damon was, so focused on the Chess-playing-Jemma-Villiers-Elijah-Harriet reality that was the book. Again, I’m more inclined to believe this was deliberate. Still, intentional or no, it was, fundamentally, very disappointing.

As unimpressive as the two lead characters were, the total antithesis was the reality for the secondary characters. I hate the use of this term with this particular book, however, because the way in which the novel was constructed made it seem as though Jemma and Villiers and Elijah were the lead characters, with the romance-carrying Roberta and Damon shoved to the back burner. I could be wrong, but aside from feeling as though Jemma and Villiers attained more page-time than the romantic couple, so too did they hog the market on personality. For as dull and uninteresting as Roberta was, Jemma was as equally extravagant, personable, funny, passionate, and logical. For as void and lackluster as Damon was, Villiers was equally full of life, expression, opinion, and thought. Elijah, the husband, was equally impressive as an interesting guy, impassioned with politics, socially minded for the people, and very much career and responsibility driven. And, yet, the author makes it very clear that huge personality defects exist in all three of these people.

Villiers is irresponsible, having fathered many bastards, some uncared for and unloved. He is a reckless and self-absorbed man, though thankfully not without his own moral code, skewed though it might be. He is very much an onion that is revealed slowly over the chapters of the book, predominately within the scenes between he and Jemma. Jemma, likewise, is flawed, being almost calculating in her scheming, primarily through her internal manipulation of managing the Harriet-Benjamin-revenge aspect with Villiers, and her marriage. (Though, blessedly this is done more as a backdrop than as enacted in any actual ploy.) She is entirely self-possessed, and one could argue materialistic. Her almost, and occasionally quite deliberate, flaunt of society’s rules has marked her not just as eccentric, but almost as nearly socially taboo. And, yet, she too is not a completely dislikeable character, for though she deliberately challenges and manipulates both her situation, and her husband, she is not without reasons. Having caught her husband philandering soon after her marriage, her abandonment of him in London, and her subsequent eight-year hiatus, and thus scorned feelings and actions, lend her creditability and relateability. Elijah, likewise, in many respects contains obvious flaws, such as his inexcusable actions of the past, and seemingly unapologetic attitude for his past transgressions. Interestingly, he, too, seems redeemable since he depicts himself as not malicious, not self-possessed, and not unbending, but rather as a man of his time. And yet, still, after all that, the above book-people held far more interest and likability for me than the two nothings of characters Roberta and Damon!

Still another big, BIG issue I had with Desperate Duchesses was of all the unresolved issues within this story! First, there’s the fact that Eloisa makes a significant effort to paint the character of Villiers, and his role in the story. With as much time as this author put into this pivotal character, one would think there would be at least a marginal resolution to his storyline in this book. I understand not wrapping up everything in a neat, tidy bow, but some resolution, at least as far as his influence in the book is concerned, should be resolved!

The issue of Teddy’s parentage goes completely afar in left field, as well, never once being resolved. In truth, Eloisa makes almost a small production over the identity of Teddy’s mother, plugging in a seemingly foreshadowing element. When asked who the mother is, Damon cryptically replies, “I promised never to tell.” Along with not resolving this issue, at all, never once referencing it again even, the author also never once touched on the realistic complexity that A) Roberta doesn’t like kids, but wants to hitch her bus to a dude who’s got a kid, and B) the dramatic undertow of being with a man who previously had a child with an unknown woman. While this concept might be common and acceptable in our time, such an act would have been marginally more dramatic during the time in which this novel was written. Not to mention, while it’s not unusual today, dialogue still exists about past lovers, the parents of children not the mother, and emotion about previous relationships being resolved or unresolved. This. Never. Happened! Even ignoring this fact, and the fact that Roberta will now take over the role of mother to Teddy, despite not liking children, she’s preggers at the end of the book! Two big kids-are-here issues that go completely unresolved!

And, what’s more frustrating, there exists even additional aspects to the book which go unanswered! Another issue is the importance, necessity, and even logic, or lack thereof, in including the random appearance of the character Charlotte, and why her perspective was even vital to the novel to begin with? Granted, while this character was only briefly on scene, and only point of appearance being to develop a spontaneous crush on Elijah, I still fail to understand why the author brought her into the book, unless she’s to be series bait. So too might have been Selina and Mrs. Grope, and even Villiers perhaps? But, no, apparently not, because none of the subsequent books in this series that I examined contain any of the characters mentioned in this novel. None of these characters’ appearance made any sense, and all of their stories went unresolved. Adding this to the fact that the huge dynamic, that was almost the entire book, among Elijah, Jemma, and Villiers, as well as the bad-marriage-but-things-are-lookin’-up aspect to Jemma and Elijah, that all went unresolved and dropped hotter than a supernova, and I’m left wondering…what the crap did I just read?!

The subsequence problems I had with the novel were miniscule in comparison, but still viable as being problematic for me. I struggled greatly with the fact that Eloisa, in the early stages of the book, made a big production out of the fact that Damon and Roberta were related. While I understand, very logically, in fact, the need for this plot device, what with Roberta requiring some other believable means of staying within the Beaumont house aside from Jemma’s eccentricity, I still found its overuse annoying. Many instances, Eloisa uses the kinship of the hero and heroine as a way of an ice-breaker, mostly driven by Damon. Many times throughout the book, Damon would constantly reaffirm the family reality between himself and Roberta, so as to bring Roberta into a more comfortable mindset when dealing with intimate subjects or, even more disturbing, in one instance, even intimacy! During a heavy make-out session, the hero actually reaffirms comfort during some smooching with the ‘it’s okay, we’re family’ shtick! This was big-time difficult for me, truly. It’s one thing to utilize family dynamics, even thin ones, to establish logic in an historical romance, especially one set in Georgian England. I can handle that, because when considering the small numbers in the society of that era with their emphasis on bloodlines, I historically comprehend that plot device. I do, however, find it seriously disgusting, too much so, for my modern mind to be reminded of the loose family connection during a physical scene! Even more so, for that to be a driving force, of sorts, for said scene! Big, huge honkin’ no-no.

Another tiny problem I had was Eloisa’s choice to bring in so many different perspectives, all the while without ever mending every POV into the story. There’s Roberta’s, which makes sense. There’s Damon’s, which makes sense. There’s Villiers, which makes decent sense. There’s Jemma’s, which makes decent sense. There’s Elijah’s, which makes less sense, but okay. There’s Charlotte (the chick who liked/danced/had a crush on Elijah…remember?) which made even LESS sense! And then, there was the fact that Eloisa would briefly remove herself from perspective entirely, operating as her own narrative. This was predominately done in the river-boat-climax scene, where no perspective was utilized to tell the events of Damon and Roberta’s boat lagging behind the others. Here Roberta’s father yells that his daughter must have been abducted, and Eloisa actually says, on page 340;

‘”My daughter!” he roared. “She’s been abducted!” Now you may think that there was nothing but cows to hear the marquess’s howl of parental distress, but in fact, he was lucky.’

That is a literal quote from the book, and though it’s infantile, that one little “you” drove me nearly bonkers with nerd-rage! Grammatically it might be fine, since Eloisa was operating in the narrative and outside of character perspective, but holy-Budda’s-belly, from a reader point of view, it was like finding a hair in my waffle! The reasons are obvious, and the rage is genuine.

Despite some of the epic book-hate spewing forth, I did find quite a number of things about this novel that were very enjoyable. Over all, despite its problems, I did actually enjoy the plot of the story. Such enjoyment, though, probably had more to do with the style of writing as opposed to the actual sequence of events within the story. I enjoyed the flow of the story, how one event, for the most part, was integral to the story as a whole. While there were scenes in the book that felt forced or ham-fisted, such as the river boat scene towards the end of the story, overall, I felt the book’s actions were real. The scenes between Jemma and Villiers, even the lust and physical obsession Roberta and Damon, and the subsequent actions of their story all felt as though it were actually happening. The detail was never so sparse that I couldn’t visualize what was happening around me, but not so drenched into the story that I was ever denied my use of imagination. I very much enjoyed the language of the writing, and how genuine to the era the dialogue and internal monologues felt.

In addition to the enjoyable technical aspects to the book, little gems were thrown in that were quite pleasant, too. Aside from learning that Chess was an extremely popular hobby among the ton in Georgian era, I too learned that purposeful lisping was considered in vogue, and a mark of high class quality. Fashion, too, was subtly woven into the (forgive the pun) fabric of the story, most especially with Villiers obsessive sense of outlandish fashionable colors, and Jemma’s style. Lastly, I so truly appreciated the direction Eloisa adopted in regards to depicting children in her romance. Not only was Roberta not obsessed with children, marginally fearing them and even disliking them, but likewise was Teddy, Damon’s bastard, never depicted as the classically cheesy Adorable Munchkin. Not only were these two elements refreshing to see, but they actually succeeded in bringing a degree of realism into the novel.

When proofreading this review, it dawned on me that, fundamentally, I had far more complaining than praise for this book, and yet I stand this book at a two star rating. Surprisingly, if any book can prove that an author can run in direct contrast to a reader’s personal taste and still manage to entertain, this one proves just that. Even though I cringed at many major and minor aspects of this book, even though there were characters that drove me up the wall, even though many aspects of the story remained unresolved at the conclusion, I still enjoyed the story. I was interested in how the novel would resolve itself, I was invested in the characters, even the ones that bored me, and I cared enough to truly want to arrive at the happily ever after.

Eloisa did a marvelous job in creating a diverse cast of characters that succeeded in keeping the story fresh. At no point did the pacing ever diminish, never once did a scene drag unnecessarily or boringly, and at the end of the day, I did not walk away from this book in book-rage. While I now officially realize Eloisa James’ style isn’t to my particular taste, I accept that she knows her history, and she does a marvelous job at painting a fictional landscape which pleases me to have been a part of, truly.
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Reading Progress

06/29/2012 page 72
18.0% "Definitely am enjoying, but the heroine needs development and a POV with the hero is slowly forthcoming. But! The large cast of characters are cohesive to the story, and the burgeoning plot seems interesting!"
07/03/2012 page 216
56.0% "I'm absolutely invested with these characters, though I feel a disconnect to the purposed lead characters, Roberta and Damon. The amount of page-time they're getting seems to be nil."
07/04/2012 page 286
74.0% "Same problem; I'm loving the story and cast, but I have zero emotion for either the hero or heroine. In truth, their presence could be entirely removed from the book, and I doubt the story would change much."
07/07/2012 page 344
90.0% "I'm smack in the midst of the "River boat" scene, and this apparent climax is a bit too unbelievably hamfisted for my taste."

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Jacqueline Thanks for the "Like" on this review, Lauren! I'm surprised anyone would, considering the monstrous length of this thing! LOL


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