Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-078192-0
Historical Romance, 2006
Eloisa James’s previous series for Avon, the Duchess quartet, started out strong but fizzled out towards the end of the series. I’m sorry to say that the trend continues with this series. It started out strong with Much Ado about You and Kiss Me, Annabel, but stumbled somewhat with The Taming of the Duke. Pleasure for Pleasure, the conclusion to the series, however, is completely banal. Insipid, even. There is nothing here that matches even the lackluster The Taming of the Duke in emotional intensity. As an added bonus, the three main female characters in this story, including Josephine “The Fat One” Essex, are happily Esme’d by the author.
As per the previous two books in this series, Pleasure for Pleasure is not recommended for the reader who is new to the series. This book isn’t a conventional romance as much as the winding down of the storylines that span the last few books, which is to say everyone who is not married by now will be by the end of this story. There are two women left who are still single at the start of this story, Josephine Essex and Griselda Langham. Josie will marry Garret, the Earl of Mayne, by the end of this story while Griselda finds love with Charles Darlington, the leader of the Mean Boys who tormented Josie with the “Scottish Sausage” nickname upon her debut. But true to Eloisa James’s usual style, this story has many other things going on, to the point that Josie and Mayne do not actually interact in a romantic manner until late quarter of the story. After all, Mayne believes himself to be in love with the Frenchwoman Sylvie de la Broderie, whom he also happens to be engaged to after he has apparently given up his womanizing ways.
Josie is eighteen while Mayne is thirty-five. However, Ms James wisely has the women in her story telling me gems like “thirty is a watershed year for men… So you mustn’t hanker after men in their twenties. That’s like buying a pig in a poke.” That makes me laugh so I’m more than happy to go along with the premise. Unfortunately, things go really wrong after the first few fifty pages.
For one, the author sets up subplots that take up precious space such as the search by a tabloid for the identity of the mysterious author who penned The Earl of Hellgate, only to have these subplots fizzle out towards the end in such a way that I wonder why Ms James even bothers to introduce them in the first place, if she’s not going to have the space to wrap them up in a satisfying manner. Then there is this pathetic delusional fellow who is set up to cause all kinds of trouble for Josie, but all he did in the end is to forcefully wed Mayne to Josie, and then that particular subplot once again fizzles out with no payoff after the build-up.
But more annoying is how chemistry-free and unconvincing the romance between Mayne and Josie is. Josie has been Esme’d. She displays none of her wit or her precocious pragmatism about men and relationships in previous books: here she is a pathetic one-dimensional fat girl who pines after a cute guy. I would be more sympathetic to Josie’s self-esteem issues if it doesn’t take just one trip to Regency England’s very own Lane Bryant and one hot dress to turn Josie into a popular girl at the party in just one night. In fact, somewhat ironically, the shallow one in this story is Josie. Why is she in love with Mayne? Because so little of this story is devoted to setting up the relationship between her and Mayne, all I know is that she loves Mayne because he’s cute. It’s amusing really: I doubt Josie, for all her constant wailing about how people are so mean to her because she’s a porkie pie, will cast a second look at Mayne to discover the man’s inner beauty if he’s fat. As for Mayne, for all I know, he likes Josie because she’s good with horses and even loves horses unlike Sylvie. I guess if he marries her he can get her to train his horses without having to pay her like he normally would a groom. I cannot detect any chemistry at all between these two characters.
Even more annoying is how Josie after her marriage to Mayne constantly pulls the “He doesn’t love me. I know! So it’s time for me to make him leave me for his own good!” card. How vexingly predictable and how pedestrian, really. So Josie in this story is pretty much a one-dimensional fake fat girl who puts on a nice dress and transforms to Tyra Banks overnight while always playing the fat martyr card even when she’s officially hot. I miss the Josie who was in the previous two books.
Griselda, who has been a source of comedy in Kiss Me, Annabel and a woman with an unexpected naughty side in The Taming of the Duke, has been Esme’d as well. After telling Imogen in the previous book that she’s had affairs in the years since her husband died, in this book she’s suddenly saying that she’s only had two affairs and those affairs were one-night events. Griselda is Esme’d in the sense that she, like Esme, sets up ridiculous standards of “proper behavior” for themselves for no credible reason other than Ms James wanting the guy chasing after that crazy woman to pant like a dog in heat because the woman in question is “too proper” to marry him, although having sex with him with lip service “Never again, after tonight, because I am a Woman of Propriety” nonsense the morning after is of course acceptable behavior of a moral romance heroine. Her relationship with Darlington is more interesting than the flat half-baked infatuation of Josie on Mayne, but this one is also not developed well enough. Of course, Griselda being ridiculous with her bizarre playing hard to get act doesn’t help. She also comes off like a traitor of sorts because she quickly abandons her moral outrage at Darlington’s misdeeds towards Josie the moment she sleeps with him, and when he confesses the true extent of his sins, she’s all, “Yeah, well, I know you won’t do that again, whatever, you don’t even have to tell me you are sorry because I’m sure you already are. Just shut up now and let’s make whoopee, baby!”
I don’t know if it’s editorial hijack or self-inflicted by the author, but Sylvie is another woman who is Esme’d. Sylvie starts out a delightfully candid and interesting heroine like a more worldly Gillian Pythian-Adams, but Ms James quickly assassinates Sylvie’s character to turn the woman who is so wise about the ways of men into a woman with truly bizarre notions of sex and marriage. It is as if aliens have kidnapped the Sylvie in the first one hundred pages of this story and replaced her with a Sylvie-nator Ballcrusher Robot. Also, the author seems to be setting Sylvie up to find romance with another worldwise woman of the Ton, but somehow she changes her mind and hastily gives Sylvie an exit that won’t offend any puritanical people that may be reading this book. The whole “My girlfriend is a lesbian!” thing won’t be the most original plot line ever but at least an unoriginal plot line that allows Sylvie to remain who she is is preferable to the lobotomizing of Sylvie into the Sylvie-nator. At least Sylvie gets to exit the story with a little of what is left of her shredded dignity, although that’s just small comfort.
Pleasure for Pleasure is a wholly unsatisfying read for me. There is no depth – the characters all come off like one-dimensional cardboard characters. It is as if Ms James has become so tired of her characters by the fourth and final book that she’s just hoping to end everything quickly so that she can start on a new series. The chapters in this story are short, as long as only three or four pages at times, so the constant jumps from scenes to scenes make me feel at the end of the day like I’ve been on a dizzying merry-go-round ride that will never end. And when it ends, I can’t help thinking that it’s a merry-go-round of the most insipid and superficial kind.