Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-053123-1
Historical Romance, 2004
Oh, that sneaky Julia Quinn. When there is a danger of her Bridgerton series turning into a monotonously perky series, she decides to submit instead what could easily be her darkest book to date. Of course, being a Julia Quinn book, this book isn’t so dark that the reader can’t get a chuckle or two out of the story. But the payoff in terms of laughter is less than those in the author’s previous books. It’s quite a pity that the author seems to operate under the belief that less funny and more issues are automatically equated to “substance”, which need not be necessarily true.
Compared to To Sir Phillip, with Love, however, When He Was Wicked is a more satisfying book. The author deals with the matter of grief and guilt in sometimes heavy-handed Hallmark-slanted ways, but she still manages to sneak up and pack a heavy punch or two when I’m not expecting her to.
In this story, Michael Sterling is hiding a secret under his rakish ways: he’s in love with his cousin’s wife, Francesca Bridgerton. Who can blame him? Ms Quinn has made it clear that the Bridgertons are so lovable, even the Pope would consider papal discharge if he ever comes across one of those ladies. Okay, it will be nice if I am given a good glimpse as to why Michael will fall for Francesca, but I will just assume that it is a Bridgerton thing and move on. Michael and his cousin John are close because their father were twins and Michael becomes part of John’s family when Michael becomes an orphan at an early age. Because of this, and because John and Francesca are so happy together, Michael tries his damned hardest to keep his infatuation to himself.
And then John dies. Oops. Michael and Francesca descend into a downward spiral of grief as well as hysteria, culminating in Michael taking off to India to shoot and plunder in the name of England while Francesca withdraws into her grief.
Four years later, Francesca decides that it’s time for her to try and move on. She wants kids, after all. Michael is back too, but it will take a while for him to accept that his attraction to Francesca isn’t a betrayal to John’s memory. Can he and Francesca move past their baggage and get their groove on? Or should someone just build them a ladder to get over themselves?
Let’s start with the good. Michael and Francesca’s relationship when John was still alive is very nicely done. When John thoughtfully dies so that the main characters can be together forever, at first I am more than willing to understand why Michael hates himself for still being attracted to Francesca. There are depths to Michael and Francesca that are rarely seen in previous books by this author.
But I never actually understand who Francesca really is. The author mentions Francesca’s wit but where is it? I don’t know why Michael is attracted to her, and later in the story when Francesca actually beats Michael in the race to see who can do that self-loathing/guilt thing more, I don’t understand why he bothers. While the author has a grasp on her characters’ issues, I feel that she overplays them, dragging them on for too long, and worst of all, using very transparent contrivances to get her characters to overcome them. There’s a matchmaker character in Colin to prod them along, Michael becoming very ill to pour on the sentimental moments and get Francesca to realize that she loves him, and some other scenes and twists that I find too mawkish for my liking. As a result, I can’t help thinking that it is Julia Quinn that forces them to get over themselves instead of the characters actually wising up and moving on.
I applaud the author for taking risks and moving her writing in a direction that her fans, used to her laugh-a-thon Regency stories, may not like. My problem with When He Was Wicked isn’t because this book is a radical departure from the author’s style – it actually isn’t – but because the author can’t seem to find the balance between her “funny” voice and her “drama” voice yet. Like To Sir Phillip, with Love, this one feels to me like an experiment on the author’s part as she tries to find that balance. Right now, with tortured characters at one end of the spectrum and too-obvious groan-inducing sentimental moments at the other end, this book comes off like a sentimental Hallmark special set in the Regency period.
I hope that Julia Quinn finds a way to do both humor and drama with equal flair soon, because when she’s at her best, her upbeat and infectious way with words and characters make her stories uniquely hers even if her own publishing house is nurturing imitators every month to cash in on her success. Maybe the next book?