by Eloisa James, historical (2006)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-078158-0
Eloisa James has dropped the ball with The Taming Of The Duke. For about the first two-thirds of the book, I'm having a ball of a time, but I am worried that the romance between Imogen Essex and Raphael Jourdain is only heating up so late in the story. Will the author be able to wrap things up in time in a satisfactory manner? Alas, no.
Please, people, do yourself a favor if you haven't read the previous related books and read them first before you start with this book. Start with Much Ado About Nothing and move on to Kiss Me, Annabel before opening this book. This book doesn't stand alone. The relationship between Imogen and her sisters and the men in their lives span all three books and The Taming Of The Duke is the winding down of Imogen's storyline rather than a self-contained standalone romance novel. You can try reading this book as a standalone book, I suppose, but there are many references to events in the main characters' past that took place in the previous two books and Ms James is not going to waste time giving backstories to those who are new to the party. The books about the Essex sisters are an ensemble romantic comedy that spans four books - they are a series in every sense of the word.
I'm worried about this book at first because I love Imogen and Eloisa James has a history of completely lobotomizing bad girls in the name of redemption. Does Esme Rawlings ring a bell, anyone? By the last book in the Duchess quartet, Esme is completely dead to me. I'm worried that Imogen, a happy Imogen, is going to be as horrifying as Esme turned out to be. Fortunately, Imogen still retains her cynical wit and sharp barb and even better, she's still recognizably Imogen, only one without any bitterness and self-recriminations.
In this book, Rafe discovers that he has a half-brother Gabriel Spenser who is the product of his father's apparently loving relationship with the man's mistress. Rafe thinks it's great to have a brother however but even he is taken aback when Gabriel asks him for a favor. As a result of an impetuous liaison with an actress, Loretta Hawes, he is a father to a young girl, Mary. Loretta is happy to let Gabe have complete custody of their daughter since the pregnancy was unintentional and she'd rather be an actress than a mother. However, her forced "hiatus" from her job as a result of her pregnancy cost her a role of a lifetime. Gabe would like Rafe to help throw a theatrical performance and invite all the right people so that Loretta can have a chance at getting her big break.
To do this, Rafe enlists the aid of the eccentric bluestocking Gillian Pythian-Adams, the young woman that Imogen's late husband was engaged to until Imogen snatched him from under her nose. If you are going, "Who? What? Isn't Gillian Pythian-Adams that actress who played Dana Scully on The X-Files?" let me remind you that I told you not to read this book without reading the other books first. You're on your own, buddy. This brings Imogen and Gillian under the same roof. If that's not uncomfortable enough, Imogen decides that Gabe, nearly a dead ringer for Rafe, will make a great first lover after her late husband's croaking since he's a Professor of Divinity and therefore has intelligence to go along with his good looks. Rafe could be hot, she suppose, if he isn't a drunkard whose gut will make him resemble his favorite wine barrel one of these days. However, Gabe has eyes for Gillian and the attraction is reciprocated. Imogen however thinks that Gillian has a thing for Rafe and somehow she doesn't feel that amused by that... thing. As for Rafe, he is definitely not happy that Imogen has set her cap on his half-brother. He's gotten more fond of her nagging and scolding than he'd expected.
I've deliberately refrained from mentioning many subplots in this book because they won't make any sense to people who haven't read the previous two books. I'll point out however that the youngest Essex sister Josie's storyline becomes more prominent here as the seeds are sown in this book for her story which will be found in the next book so anyone who's reading the next book should read this book at the very least first.
Let's start with the good things. I still adore Imogen here, although I really miss her rapport with Garret, the Earl of Mayne because a happy Imogen who's at peace with herself lacks that special something - an edge, if you will. Still, she still has her share of amusing lines and set-downs ("You're not going to seduce me, are you? Because I'm nothing more than a wee, frail female and I might be overcome by the sight of your belly," she tells Rafe on page 105) and she is still an unconventional heroine because she has something that many romance heroines are too afraid to have in fear of offending ridiculously moralistic romance readers with no sense of context who will call them amoral in their reviews of the book on Amazon: joie d'vivre, a healthy appreciation of fun things in life. The scene where she has the time of her life in a seedy club puts a big smile on my face because Imogen is just glorious there. That's Imogen: she can take care of herself, she can stand up to people who want to put her down, and she gives back as good as she gets.
The problem is, Eloisa James has a fine heroine at her disposal but she chooses to give Imogen this story. The Taming Of The Duke is too small for Imogen. Am I making sense here? The story does not take advantage of Imogen's personality and the mellowing she has experienced since the death of her husband. Any heroine would do in this story. Imogen deserves something more than this story, I feel, something that will make her practice what she has learned to make a change or a difference in her own life as well as others. This problem is amplified by the fact that in her few quiet scenes with Rafe, she eclipses him completely. She's in charge, she is the one singing rowdy songs to entertain everybody, and she's the one making Rafe feel things when she is either giving him a bath during his withdrawal to ease his pain or smashing his bottles of alcohol to keep him from drinking again.
In contrast, Rafe is a passive character. Sure, he decides to give up drinking and Ms James mentions Rafe's withdrawal effects and the difficulty he experiences at first in a rather cursory manner. I won't object if Ms James chooses to downplay Rafe's struggle with the bottle and instead highlighting how hot he looks now that he's not drinking and his, er, beer belly shrinks as if by magic because this is, after all, a romantic comedy. However, I will object to the fact that Rafe chooses to pretend to be Gabe while he's with her and even sleeping with her. This development is given away by the back blurb so I don't consider this a spoiler, but this takes place late in the story, mind you. Rafe comes off like a spineless coward who is playing the woman he supposedly loves for a fool. When Imogen discovers this deception, Ms James has her going pretty much, "Well, that's okay, I love Rafe so... whatever!" But Imogen thinks that she's with Gabe, so how can she claim that she loves Rafe when the deception is revealed without feeling even a little... used? Angry? Deceived? Not even a slipper tossed at Rafe's head? I find it hard to believe that someone like Imogen will not let such a deception take place without even showing a middle finger to Rafe.
If Imogen is a typical braindead Regency historical romance heroine who will be desperately happy just because some guy is willing to marry her, I may find that resolution acceptable. But come on, this is Imogen we are talking about here. She's a woman who exorcised her demons so beautifully in the last book. She's a complicated heroine that isn't easily pigeon-holed as "good" or "bad". Why am I getting a story where she's played for a fool by a man too cowardly to tell her he loves her and a self-righteous creepy fool of his half-brother and oh my, she's okay with it? The Taming Of The Duke on the whole fails to bring out the depths and complexity in Imogen that the previous books did. It makes her look like a fool in the end as well.
The secondary romance between Gabe and Gillian isn't my favorite, to be honest, because Gabe has a Whore/Madonna complex when it comes to women and I don't think he's in love with Gillian as much as he's in love with the idea of marrying a "virtuous" woman. I think Gillian deserves a more interesting love interest or at least not a control freak type who sleeps with actresses and who knows what else in his free time while disapproving of people having fun at the same time.
This book is well-written and I have fun reading some of the scenes in this book - the scene where Rafe decides after watching Imogen that he will finally stop drinking at page 170 is a favorite of mine - and before Rafe turns into a spineless creep with his pretense of being Gabe, his scenes with Imogen are wonderful to read. However, these scenes are far and few. Ms James gets too carried away, I find, with setting up Josie's story and more to the point that Imogen and Rafe never get the attention they deserve since this is supposed to be their story.
At the end of the day, here is just something really wrong with this story when a character like Imogen ends up with a story where she can be easily replaced by any less interesting female character and the story will still work without a hitch. Such callous underappreciation and underutilization of Imogen is pretty shocking since Ms James worked hard at giving Imogen depths and complexity in the previous two books only to drop the ball like this when it comes to Imogen's moment to shine under the spotlight. Eloisa James can do better than this, I'm sure, although I'm sure poor Esme Rawlings would beg to differ. The fact that Imogen isn't completely lobotomized into a zombiefied wannabe of a Mary Balogh heroine like poor Esme was is small comfort though. Imogen deserves better. I deserve better.
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