Saturday, August 2, 2008

Duchess by Night by Eloisa James

I lucked onto this book on my recent road trip, when we stayed with a fellow romance reader who had a bag of like-new romances she was getting ready to donate to charity. Since I had to fly home, and hadn't planned on including 30 books in my suitcase, I only grabbed 8.

This is a new-to-me author, one I've known about but hadn't yet put in my TBR piles. When I noticed it was wishlisted at PBS, I figured I should read it before turning it into a PBS credit - and I'm really delighted I did!

The book is the 3rd in a series, so I was conflicted because I prefer to read series in order. However, I decided to throw caution to the winds and jump into it mid-stream! The series is called "Desperate Duchesses" on Ms James' website - a tribute to Desperate Housewives, but apparently only in name. That's just as well, since I haven't seen much of Desperate Housewives anyway.

The desperate duchess in this case is Harriet, whose duke/husband committed suicide 2.5 years ago over his passion for chess. I actually kept waiting for a deeper darker secret than a chess game, which never came. Hmmmm. What a tortured soul he must have been.

Harriet's duchy is in the country, and she's only 27 but feeling somewhat spinsterly, countrified and dowdy when she appears at an impromptu masquerade as Mother Goose, since the other women have chosen more risqué costumes. As she discusses it with 2 other duchesses (I guess they are the heroines in some other books...) and a male friend (was Villiers a duke?), she decides she wants to be wild just once and agrees to accompany her friends Isidore and Villiers to an ongoing house party that is reputed to have a lot of loose women and plenty of debauchery. To protect her reputation, she dresses as a man so that no one need know who she is. She only wants to observe, not participate.

I liked the fact that they planned it out in advance, tailoring the clothing for her, spending time having her learn how to walk and act like a man. She wasn't a hoyden, after all, preferring riding astride and such. She just wanted to have an adventure!

Lord Strange aka Jem is a wonderful character - rich as Croesus, apparently, and involved in politics, as well as an inventor. He is widowed and has a precocious 8-year-old daughter that he keeps practically imprisoned in one wing, theoretically for her own good. While he does come across as a doting father, he also maintains this house party - basically his house is always open (by some kind of open invitation) to certain people, mostly theater people and politicians it seems. The women are loose; the men are there for the loose women and the hobnobbing (yes, interestingly, no gigolos here). It's as if he has two lives, one the debaucher, one the loving father.

Jem is immediately attracted to "Harry" when she arrives, and is disgusted with himself for it. If this is what getting old involves, he thinks, he wants no part of it. He is warned by his butler that Harry is too innocent for the goings-on at Strange Manor (Fonthill), and he takes young Harry under his wing, to protect him and sorta build him up. Jem teaches him to ride (astride! ouch!) and fence, and gives him advice about women.

The subplot involving Isidore is that she wants to have a scandal so that her husband, whom she has never met (so she is still a virgin after several years of marriage) will come home from Africa to claim her. Isidore, in spite of instigating the entire trip, is too shocked by the goings on to participate. It seems she does manage to get her husband to appear, and it seems they will be the focus of the 4th Desperate Duchess book.

OK, enough about plot - I truly loved this book! I'm always delighted to find another new author who is fun to read. While I didn't find it laugh-out-loud funny like a Julia Quinn story, it was witty and amusing. I bought the whole dressed-as-a-man idea more than the AAR reviewer did. It made me think of an episode in Charmed where Prue is turned into a man temporarily, and had to learn to think and walk and stand as a man. Prue observed the hunky next door neighbor, and imitated his walk and mannerisms, which is what I imagined "Harry" doing before arriving at Strange's. I really liked that she wasn't already a tomboy, going against society, but a woman daring to act out a fantasy. While dressed as a man, she realized the freedoms that men take for granted, and I felt she grew as a character in that way, learning more about herself and her potential.

I also want to mention that I'm in love with the step-back cover although the woman in it in no way resembles "Harry" as described in the book. After all, she was passing as a man, with short hair, not the long blonde locks of the woman in the picture. Still, the pose, the look on the man's face, as if he were getting ready to eat her alive - well, I found it very enticing.

so it's a 5 star read for me, and will soon also be a PBS credit as well! (wait, how can I keep the picture??)

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