Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-380-82085-4
Historical Romance, 2003
Let’s lay all the cards down at the table, shall we? Julia Quinn, oh Julia Quinn. There’s no denying that she’s a superstar – she single-handedly proves to the world that there is a market for light-hearted Regency-era historicals written with a humorous, decidedly contemporary slant. She spawns a million imitators. Now, I guess she knows she must stay one foot ahead of the wannabes. She has to adapt. She has to change. Also, being called a “fluffy author” must hurt a little, so she wants to prove that she can write a plot with “substance” too.
So here it is, To Sir Phillip, with Love, a test not only for the author but also for her fans. There is no Lady Whistledown, nothing, just Julia Quinn presenting a story where the hero is a little darker than her usual sort. How does it fare?
Eloise Bridgerton has been writing to her late cousin’s husband Sir Phillip Crane for about a year now. At twenty-eight and still searching for love, Eloise has come to fantasize about Sir Phillip being her knight in shining armor. When he writes to request her to honor him with a visit (where they may even get married if they learn how much they suit), she just has to visit him at once.
She’s not what he expects – a beautiful, opiniated woman who’s all wrong for the studious botanist. He’s not what she expects either. Sir Phillip has two kids, however, so there are plenty of opportunities for Eloise to play perfect momma to. He also lost his wife when the depressed woman tried to drown herself, only to die of a fever after Phillip saved her. It’s all melancholy and blues for Phillip, although he reassures me in the prologue that he doesn’t love Marina.
I like the writing. I like the letters between Phillip and Eloise, although I find it tacky that these two spark so soon after Marina died. But when these two meet, I find myself suffering from sugar shock that doesn’t let go until the last page. One of the problems is Eloise being a Bridgerton. By now, everyone knows that the Bridgertons are powerful, perfect, intelligent, better than you and I, just freaking perfect, so there is really no other way the author can create Eloise other than ultra perky and totally annoying. The children are irritating because they speak and act in ways that are really fake and manipulative, it’s like watching awful self-conscious kiddie actors on TV or something. Sir Phillip is so sad, Eloise is so perfect and sage despite being oh-so-precious with her conversations and antics. Unfortunately, these two have no chemistry. The author tells me those two are hitting it off, but she’s not showing me those two like each other as much as she says they do.
But the most unbearable aspect of To Sir Phillip, with Love is its very modern perspective on everything from child-bringing to pop psychology. Eloise and Phillip’s stance against corporal punishment is definitely and jarringly modern, and I have this feeling that I am supposed to laud these two characters for being so revolutionary and visionary. Eloise and Phillip overcome his blues in ways that are straight out of a talk-show. Kindly, saintly, sage Eloise always have a Martha Stewart tip handy for every occasion, and if you haven’t been converted to the Bridgerton’s “Use Modern Psychology and Talk to Your Misbehaving Children: They Are Just Looking for Love Like You” school of thought, the author makes sure you do by hammering it in the last few chapters until you either see the light or vomit sugar while trying.
I wonder if Julia Quinn, in her quest to prove that she can deliver a meaty story, somehow loses focus of her story here. Sometimes, one doesn’t need to write a dark and gloomy story – dark and substantial aren’t always interchangeable. So what if a story is a light-hearted romp? As long as the characters are well-developed, the chemistry is there, and the plots are engaging, the book will be alright, no? It is true that an author needs to evolve, but from what I get in To Sir Phillip, with Love, this may be a case of an author trying too hard in all the wrong places.