Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-050812-4
Historical Romance, 2004
A Wild Pursuit is a welcome return to the Regency comedy of errors and manners that made Duchess in Love enjoyable. Unfortunately, the author fails to sustain her initial momentum in the story. By the time the book plods and muddles its way into its second act, I am just counting the minutes (and pages) until I’m done with this book.
Oh, and this book will work better if readers start from Duchess in Love first: the convoluted relationships between the large cast in this book are rarely explained in detail enough to allow new readers to catch up with the story. This is because A Wild Pursuit isn’t a romance story in its own right as much as it is a transition of sorts between the author’s last book and the next.
In this book, in Shantill House at Limpley-Stoke, Wiltshire, the very pregnant Lady Esme Rawlings, last seen in a reconciliation of sorts with her lover-turned-gardener, is now broken off with him again and is still trying to become respectable. Her aunt Arabella descends upon Esme’s country retreat hoping to bring some cheer to things, and joining Arabella is her charming and equally scandalous companion Beatrix Lennox. Joining them is Stephen Fairfax-Lacy, a stuffy Earl who is looking for a mistress, and Helene, Esme’s friend and a wife who is separated from her husband in all but name only.
Arabella thinks that Stephen will be a perfect husband for Esme. Esme and Bea tell Helene that Stephen will be perfect for Helene to flirt and conduct an affair with just to spite Helene’s husband Rees. Helene, always a passive and mousy prim and proper type, hesitantly agrees with the ladies’ plans. But Stephen, while trying so hard to start an affair with Helene, finds that Bea keeps getting under his skin. And Bea, despite her best intentions, finds herself attracted to the man she mockingly calls the Puritan.
A Wild Pursuit is an ensemble period costume comedy rather than a straightforward romance novel. Eloisa James, for a while, manages to have me laughing along with her as the characters indulge in oh-so-charming antics. But I soon tire of the characters because the author, to be honest, doesn’t really have much to sustain the story at its 381-paged length.
One of Ms James’s problems is that she cannot keep Esme’s subplot interesting. While I like Esme in previous books, I could cheerfully throttle her here because Esme’s “Oh, I must be respectable and be a martyr now because I promised my late husband!” act is really starting to grate. She keeps coming on hot and cold, sleeping with her lover and then going into tedious self-flagellations next, that she truly irritates me to no end. What happened to character evolution? Esme is so inconsistently written that she is no longer a character as much as a failed subplot.
Stephen is another character that remains in a rut, never changing until late in the story and by that time I can’t really be bothered to care anymore. His attraction to Bea even as he actively and publicly tries to humiliate or get a rise out of her may be amusing at first but by the time half the book is done and he is still playing at being a hypocrite, he begins to annoy me too. As for Bea, she is actually a secondary character in this story. Helene is actually the heroine of this story despite her never actually falling in love. Her character development sets up her book, coming out next, but Ms James setting up Helene for her book comes at the expense of the chance of Bea and Stephen’s “Want you! Don’t like you!” romance getting chance to be fleshed out better.
Because this book relies on several subplots that are just not interesting, A Wild Pursuit soon becomes a tedious reading experience that makes me grit my teeth in annoyance whenever Bea, Stephen, and Esme come into the scene. Alas, this means that by the last page of the book, my jaw aches because the three idiots are just bloody everywhere. There are some charming and genuinely funny scenes in this book and Ms James writes very well in style and phraseology that are near musical at times, but the characters and the plot just aren’t enough to keep my attention engaged for long. What this book succeeds in doing though is to make me feel very keen to read about Helene’s reconciliation with her husband, which is hardly a recommendation as much as an acknowledgment on how well Ms James has succeeded in mastering the art of effective sequel-baiting.
So, in short, A Wild Pursuit is nothing more than a filler book between the last book and the next book by the author. The plot meanders, the characters are stuck in a rut most of the time, and by the time the story picks up the pace in the third act, I really am not in the mood for anything more other than to put behind me this book and its overemphasis on the increasingly tedious “We may be scandalous, but we are all nice, virtuous, and misunderstood ladies at heart!” theme that runs through the author’s series for Avon.