I have read this book three(?) times before. I had started a couple new books recently but they just weren’t capturing my attention, and I was in the mood for an old stand-by. Eloisa James is a really hit-or-miss author for me. I don’t think I’ve ever hated something she’s written, but I have DNF’ed a couple. But there are a couple that I just really adore too (like this one), so she’s always worth a shot.
This is the third of six books in the Desperate Duchesses series – and in my opinion, the best of the bunch. I do not think it is necessary to have read the previous books, though they will help you enjoy one of the side characters more. This series is set in the Georgian time period, which is a nice change from all the Regencies out there (though I’m not even sure which decade it is set in – somewhere between 1780-1795 I think. I could look it up, but I won’t.) Harriet is a widow (and a duchess – surprise!) who finds her life very boring and lonely and decides one day to shake things up. She tags along with friends who are going to a scandalous house party at the notorious Lord Strange’s (Jem’s) house. But, she can’t go as herself because…well, that’s never made entirely clear…something, something…preserving her reputation. So, instead, she dresses up as a young man named Harry. (Because if that was found out there would NEVER be a scandal – *written in sarcasm font*). Anyway, if you can get over the implausibility of the set-up, this is a really joyful story.
It is mostly Harriet’s story of how she finds her strengths and can finally feel comfortable in her own skin once she is free of her real life. Some of it is superficial – she has always felt clumsy, but once she is no longer wearing huge skirts and can move around freely in pants, she can do all sorts of things like fence and ride horses. She socializes with actresses and dancers and other ‘types’ of women she has never had in her social sphere before, and she learns a lot about how others live. But the best self-discovery is that she is able to brag to someone about the important work she does sitting as judge for the local court at home, and Jem also takes pride in her accomplishments.
There are good and bad things about the hero. Lord Strange is an eye roll inducing name, but I got over it. One of my favorite things about Jem is that he is attracted to Harry(iet) from the beginning and doesn’t really deny it. He’s admittedly annoyed with himself over being attracted to another man, and there are a few comments from others about it, but no character is ever freaked out about it, and I appreciate that. In fact, Jem starts to question his sexuality because of his attraction to Harry and starts to accept it because of his feelings about Harry as a person. How refreshing! On the other hand, there is this Big Dark Secret revealed in the last few chapters of the book that is supposed to explain why Jem has this on-going house party and why he treats his (plot moppet) daughter in such a strange way. I think James included it as extra conflict for the characters. But, on every read of this book I find the Secret unnecessary, and I always feel that Jem would have actually acted the complete opposite of how he does if the Secret were true. So, that part rang really hollow with me. But, since this is really Harriet’s story, I just let it go and enjoyed her getting everything she ever wanted.
If you want something that is both mainstream historical romance while also having slightly different characters and settings this is for you.