Our book today is This Duchess of Mine, a 2009 entry in Eloisa James' ongoing series of Romance novels featuring Georgian duchesses with various kinds of marital dilemmas. Which, as a one-sentence overview, doesn't distinguish these books much from hundreds of other Romance novels published every year - it often seems like the half that don't feature the sultry undead feature the idle landed gentry.
The important difference - in these as in all books, in all genres, at all times - is the tenor of the prose. Clever plotting helps, and a sturdy premise is quite useful (and neither of those things is ever as common as I'd like), but the basic math of fiction still applies: the more energy and wit the author pours into their work, the more enjoyment you'll get out of it.
In this respect, the genre of Romance virtually belongs to Eloisa James. It's a given in this series of hers that her love-plagued duchesses are always smarter and quicker-witted than everybody around them (including, with satisfying regularity, their husbands), but the same could be said of James herself - her prose sparkles with lively dialogue, tastefully understated descriptions (over-elaborate descriptions being the bane of period Romances), an easy assurance (including - and extreme rarity here - action sequences, which James handles with exciting ease), and a continuing awareness of 'the Big Picture,' a broader perspective than you usually find in genre novels.
The problem faced by Jemma, the beautiful and slightly imperious Duchess of Beaumont in This Duchess of Mine, is mischievously simple: she's in love with her husband. Which sounds simple enough in 2009 (or, considering the divorce rates in America, maybe it doesn't), but in 1784 London's smart set, it's positively gauche. Neither the Duke nor the Duchess has a spotless romantic history (he has a mistress, she dabbles in naughty affairs)(although never, she somewhat limply asserts, with a married man), and when the book opens he's hardly thinking of passionate affairs with his wife - he's far too absorbed in helping William Pitt run England. His wife isn't the only character to refer to Elijah, the Duke, as 'puritanical,' but she's determined to add some actual passion to their arranged marriage. It's a serious mission and she's serious about it, despite being surrounded by fawning fops who advise against seriousness of any kind:
"Are we allowed to be serious only about stockings?" she asked.
He thought about it longer than she thought necessary. "I am quite serious about scandal," he offered.
"But never about passion itself?"
He wrinkled his nose but his eyes were sympathetic. "Thank God, infatuation has never forced me into seriousness. A beautiful woman should never be serious, Duchess."
"It implies that there is something you cannot have. And we who are not as beautiful prefer to believe that you have everything you wish for in life. That is the essence of beauty, after all."
One of the little hallmarks of a good Romance novel is audience participation - if the author knows her business, she'll have her readers so frustrated with her main characters that they won't know whether to cheer for them or strangle them. This is certainly the case with Elijah and Jemma, both extremely intelligent, willful chess players, and - it turns out - both wanting the same thing: the complete devotion of the other. As each proceeds through a series of harmless flirtations and stumbled-into misunderstandings, they alternately infuriate and exasperate each other, as in a tense scene where the Duchess shows the Duke an expensive new chess set:
"Where did you acquire this?" he inquired.
"Oh, it was a gift," Jemma said. "Look, Elijah, the rook has a tiny person inside the window."
"Would you say that I am a restrained person?"
Jemma looked up. Her husband sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth. "Yes, of course I would, Elijah."
"In short, my face never takes on a seething expression like that on the face of this king."
She was starting to wish she had just gone to bed.
"This is a gift from a man, isn't it?" Elijah said, still with that curiously flat intonation.
"If you are planning to boil with rage over that fact," she said. "I believe we should cancel our game until tomorrow."
"This chess set is worth a small fortune."
Jemma put down the piece she was holding and rose to her feet.
"I know exactly who sent it to you. And I won't have it."
This Duchess of Mine is pure, vivacious fun, with two central characters who are compulsively interesting. James' writing rewards readers with a smile or a surprise on every page. This last week saw the publication of her next Duchess book, A Duke of Her Own - I haven't read it yet, but I'm betting I'll like it.