|Eloisa James is a hit-or-miss author for me, and her latest is more miss than hit. Desperate Duchesses opens a new series, and the author spends so much time setting up the future volumes that the main romance suffers. The derivative title didn’t help. Every time I looked at the book, I found myself wondering if we’ll soon see stories about the Earl of Shrek, or perhaps CSI: Regency London. God help us.
Lady Roberta St. Giles would like a Season, but her father is England’s most notorious poet, labeled the Mad Marquess in the press. His verse is either brilliant or idiotic, or perhaps a combination of both, and it’s Roberta who suffers for it. Her mother is either dead or sequestered in the country (I never quite figured it out) and the marquess contents himself with a series of slightly tawdry mistresses. Not exactly the type of life that will guarantee Roberta entry into Society.
Meanwhile Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, has returned from eight years in Paris with the intent of finally granting her estranged husband an heir. Jemma has made a name for herself with her Parisian escapades and lovers, not to mention she’s a brilliant chess player. Chess is all the rage in London at the moment, a fact that will play into the plot. But before she retires to the country to become pregnant, Jemma wants to shake up London society and flaunt a few lovers in her husband’s face.
Jemma is one of four unhappily married duchesses (one widowed) who will apparently be featured in upcoming volumes. She’s not particularly sympathetic, as she and her husband are clearly attracted to one another but hold only the most superficial of conversations. He’s an important member of Parliament and doesn’t want his wife embarrassing him; she’s a supposed social butterfly who thinks he’s a prig. Her devotion to semi-scandalous behavior, such as entertaining men in her boudoir, smacks of immaturity more than anything else. The author spends quite a bit of time on them at the outset of the story, then Roberta shows up on Jemma’s doorstep, hoping their distant-cousin relationship will persuade Jemma to launch her into Society and snare the husband of her dreams - the Duke of Villiers.
Roberta met Villiers at the one ball she recently attended. He’s a rakehell with a notorious reputation, and clearly not the man for her, but Roberta insists he’d make the perfect husband, due to his good looks and his aversion to poetry. Villiers, himself a top-level chess player, has recently humiliated one of the other Duchesses, and Jemma plans revenge by besting him at chess. Villiers wants Jemma as a lover, and for some odd reason, decides that getting engaged to Roberta will further his plans. Meanwhile, Damon, the Earl of Gryffyn (and Jemma’s brother) is captivated by Roberta and decides to marry her.
Good luck finding the romance in this story. According to the back blurb, Damon and Roberta are supposed to be on center stage, but their place in the tale barely registers until the book is two-thirds over. Damon seems like a decent sort; his devotion to his illegitimate five-year-old son is touching, but he isn’t given much to do other than seduce Roberta. Villiers is clearly a cad, but the more she finds out about his character, the more Roberta tries to convince herself that he’s perfect husband material. To be blunt, she came across as incredibly stupid. As for Jemma and Beaumont, they occupy too much space and their relationship isn’t compelling in the first place, based as it is on non-communication. They’re beautiful, they’re wealthy, and deep down, they care about each other, but they refuse to talk. This leaves Ms. James expending her considerable skill upon superficial conversations that don’t advance the story. I didn’t care if they resolved their differences or not, which will undoubtedly save me seven bucks in the future.
The author sets her tale in Georgian England, and there is plenty of detail about wigs, panniers and the like, but I could have done with less fashion commentary and more story. Desperate Duchesses left me desperately wanting a better romance. Diehard Eloisa James fans may find it interesting, but I can’t recommend it.