Wednesday, August 29, 2012

THOUGHTS on "The Ugly Duchess" by Eloisa James

The Ugly Duchess (Fairy Tales, #4)The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is divided into two portions, the "before" and the "after." I really enjoyed the "before", and I also enjoyed the "after", and was along for the emotional ride for both parts, but I had a lot of trouble connecting the two halves of the book into a coherent emotional arc.

It almost felt like two half-novels, with completely different concepts and characters, hastily glued together to form a full-sized novel. While there were sections between the "before" and "after" that were meant to show Theo and James' changing personalities, I found myself skimming over these parts in disbelief because the actions that precipitated these changes seemed random and unmotivated to me.

For instance, James deciding to become a pirate seemed completely out of the blue. Prior to this decision, I didn't see any indication of criminal tendencies from him. In fact, his outrage at his father's immoral (and illegal) behaviour, and guilt over how he had allowed himself to be bullied into taking advantage of Theodora led me to believe that he wanted to hold himself to some moral code of decency. I would have expected someone like that to only be pushed into piracy by circumstances he could not control, or something like a complete loss of faith in human decency. But I didn't see anything like that. The closest thing I could come to for motivation would be his desire to make his fortune, since his father's loss of their fortune is what forced him into betraying Theodora. But if this was his motivation, it didn't seem to drive him in a logical way. He didn't make any mention of intending to use whatever fortune he gained to make up for Theodora's embezzled fortune, or to manage his family's entailed land.

Theodora's change from a warm, funny (if a little cuttingly acerbic) girl, to a work-obsessed woman afraid of sexual intimacy was even more baffling to me. I didn't fully understand how her feelings of betrayal and unworthiness from the first half of the novel could trigger changes to this degree, and unlike with James, we see no scenes of Theodora's transition. This made it seem like Theodora didn't grow from being a warm funny girl to being an emotionally withdrawn obsessive-compulsive - rather it seemed like we were presented with two completely different characters, and asked, as readers, to either (i) fill in the blanks or (ii) just take it on faith that there was motivation underlying these changes. While I sympathized with both Theo-before and Theo-after, Theo-before and Theo-after seemed too disjointed for me to even see them as the same person, with a single emotional arc. I think that Theo overhearing James' father comparing her sexual behaviour to what he expected of a "proper" lady was supposed to motivate her distate for sexual intimacy, but I feel like we didn't get enough glimpses into Theo's thoughts or emotions about this to confirm this hypothesis. (For some writing styles where we don'tsee into the character's thoughts, and only see character's actions, this wouldn't be an issue, because but this book is one where we DO often hear what the characters are thinking, the lack was conspicuous and made Theo's character seem disjointed to me.)

Even with these issues, though, I really enjoyed the book. I always enjoy Eloisa James' writing style, and although I personally prefer historical romance novels where the social structures of the day put more restrictions on the characters (eg., I might have liked James' piracy and tattoo to have had graver consequences than it did, given that we were told that no tattooed man was supposed to be able to return to English society), I was distracted enough by how the novel tugged on my emotional heartstrings not to care.

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