by Eloisa James, historical (2007)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-06-078193-4
Desperate Duchesses is called such because the duchesses in question have a "desperate disposition". They are not really desperate in the way you are probably thinking, heh. Fresh from living it up in Paris and other fun spots in France, these ladies have descended to town hot in the footsteps of Princess Caroline for various reasons of their own, bringing with them their not-so-rosy reputations and all.
And like the author's previous books from Avon, this book is more of an ensemble affair rather than a straightforward romance. In fact, the main characters that are supposed to be the main couple here are practically chewed up and spat out by two secondary characters that steal every scene they are in. Still, with this book being what it is, and the author being who she is, I'm completely at Eloisa James' mercy.
Desperate Duchesses is not the easiest story to give a synopsis of because of its ensemble soap opera nature where several storylines will no doubt carry over to future books. I'll do my best, though. It's all about chess. Yes, chess. I have never thought of chess in such an erotic context until I read this book, I tell you. The main backdrop of this story is Jemma, the infamous Duchess of Beaumont, challenging the Duke of Villiers to a chess match, one move each day. At the same time, she's also playing another match, one move each day, with her estranged husband Elijah. Rumors are that whoever wins two out of three matches will also win Jemma, if you know what I mean.
Thrust into the excitement is Roberta St Giles, a young lady, who hopes to use her distant connection to Jemma to have an actual season away from her father's presence. You see, her father is known to all as the Mad Marquess for his obsessive poetry-writing (none of them very good, in all honesty) and shocking social faux pas like bringing his mistress along with him and his daughter while making the rounds around town. As long as the Mad Marquess and his mistress are in the same town as Roberta, the poor dear is never going to be anything more than gossip fodder. Tired of dealing with his father's "artistic" eccentricities and yearning for a husband with absolutely no creative bone in his body, Roberta is now in town to get a husband on her own. She has her eyes on Villiers because she's young enough to confuse infatuation with love. She definitely does not want to play kissing cousins with Jemma's brother, Damon Reeve. She doesn't! Really!
Roberta and Damon are the designated main couple if I'm to go by the back blurb, but I have to say that the stars of the story are actually Villiers, Jemma, and her husband Elijah as the three use the chess board to express their most complicated love-hate feelings for each other. I adore Jemma, I tell you, but I'm trying very hard to distance myself from her at the same time because I can see "Esme" written all over her and I fear to even imagine what the author will do to her as time passes. Eloisa James writes excellent heroines who break the rules, but she's paradoxically terrible at figuring out what to do with these heroines, thus the tragedy of the seasons that were Esme Rawlings and to a lesser extent Imogen Essex. I'm especially afraid because it's frighteningly possible at this point that Ms James will pair Jemma with the hypocritical prig Elijah when Jemma is much more compatible with Villiers. I can easily see Ms James forcing Jemma to be "moral" just to get into Elijah's good graces and I don't think I can take another Esme Rawlings tragedy in my hands. Ms James, please be a dear and kill off Jemma if this is indeed the kind of "redemption" you have planned for Jemma.
For now, I'm trying very hard not to like Jemma but it's hard, really, because she's really adorable. I like how despite her more dramatic antics, Jemma remains a pretty real woman with emotions that I can certainly relate to. Her scenes with Elijah can be heartbreaking at times because Elijah is such an insufferable and judgmental jackass and Jemma hurts in a way that cuts deep even as she tries not to show it. Villiers, on the other hand, is such a gorgeous example of an unrepentant bad boy hero that has me feeling like an impressionable teenage girl all over again. His scenes with Jemma really resonate with me because these two characters are evenly matched and they trade flirtatious banters while oozing sexual tension like old professionals of the game. That's why I am really afraid for Jemma - I will really cry if she turns out to be another Esme Rawlings.
Oh yes, the main characters. As I've mentioned earlier, poor Damon and Roberta are pretty much lost in the background every time Villiers, Jemma, and Elijah take the stage, so to speak. Roberta is an adorable heroine in her own right. She's immature and... well, she's young in every sense of that word where her way of thinking is concerned. I can easily imagine some readers disliking her because Roberta is a heroine that requires patience on the reader's part to deal with as she isn't a saint who does everything right from the start. On my part, I adore Roberta. I find her stubborn insistence on Villiers being her one and only understandable, in fact, given her personality. Roberta believes that she knows all there is to know about the games between a man and a woman just because she's seen and been told some rather saucy things in her father's house but it is only in London that she finally realizes that she doesn't know all that much after all about games with the opposite sex.
Her getting to this realization and her subsequent entertaining embrace of the fact that she's not much different from her father after all make a most enjoyable character development arc. It's a pity that Roberta just cannot become as interesting as Jemma in this story, because in another story, she'll be a pretty fun heroine. Damon is a low-key but most attractive kind of hero. He's a nice guy but when he decides that he wants Jemma, he decides that maybe he'll be a little less nice. And when he shows his naughty side, I feel my toes curling up like that because he's so cheeky and naughty that way. I also love how cool he can get when he's using sharp instruments to stab at men he views as rivals to his love for Roberta. The more quiet moments between Roberta and Damon work for me because these scenes are fun and the characters have a most enjoyable repartee and banter system between them. Oh, and Damon's son Teddy is the cutest thing ever without being too sweet or grating. I also like how Roberta doesn't magically turn into a sensitive new age nanny in this story. She's a young lady who views the world to revolve around her and her reactions with regards to Teddy remain true to her character.
So what works and what doesn't when it comes to Desperate Duchesses? Well, I suppose the main characters don't seem as interesting as the secondary characters in this story but really, I think Roberta and Damon will still be adorable without these distracting secondary characters. I suppose I'm also scared about what Ms James will do to Jemma because I have survived the carnage that was done to Esme and Imogen and I am worried sick about poor Jemma. Eloisa James always reverts to her Ms Hyde persona when it comes to giving the designated bad girl of her series her love story and because Ms James can write so well at times, the one who hurts the most during such character assassinations is always me. But that's probably just me being a silly worried hen using my past experiences with this author's books to fret. For all I know, Elijah will accidentally lose his testicles in an accident involving his mistress and a carriage wheel, leaving him sweet and docile enough to play the role of the house pet as Jemma and Villiers get married and paint London town red... yeah, I don't believe that either. Jemma is so getting clobbered down to meet Elijah's "standards". I think I'm getting an ulcer just thinking about the Jemma's inevitable lobotomy.
What works? The use of chess as a vivid backdrop and foreplay, strip dominoes (don't ask), fun characters that aren't so easily pigeon-holed into labels, Ms James displaying a most delightful attunement to her female characters' psyche as she makes them come off as pretty real women instead of mere ciphers... come to think of it, that's pretty much nearly everything about this book that works for me.
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