Gack! Another fairy-tale-themed romance. It really wasn't my intention to go back to this particular well, but I thought this book was so lovely that I almost felt like I had no choice but to share my affection for it with you.
Eloisa James is one of my must-read authors, and in The Ugly Duchess, she combines two of my favorite tropes: friends turned lovers and a story borrowed from a fairy tale. In this case, it's Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling (surprise!). Before you go all history police, Ms. James herself is aware of the anachronism inherent in basing a novel spanning the years 1809–1816 on a fairy tale first published in 1843 and acknowledges it clearly in the afterword. (And, really, isn't "The Ugly Duckling" just a Cinderella story with feathers?) The fairy tale is just a framework, anyway — a dressmaker's dummy around which to shape the fabric of the tale.
And, oh, what a tale it is.
Theodora and James have been friends for years. When James proposes, he does it in such a way that Theo is convinced he is in love with her, even though she is, at best, plain. Of course, this being Romancelandia, James has an ulterior motive for marrying Theo, and naturally, she finds out. There's a dust-up and he goes off a-pirating, only to return seven years later. In that time, Theo has made a success of herself and the estate.
Nearly half the book takes place during the time they are separated, which gives the reader some insight into who they are as individuals. Some people have complained that James's actions — abandoning Theo for seven years, leaving her alone to run the estate his father had run into the ground, taking multiple mistresses — were unforgivable. But I don't feel that Theo let him back into her good graces too easily, and I never thought that she betrayed herself by taking him back. James's faults and mistakes seemed forgivable in the context of their relationship. (Compare this with another book I read where the hero kidnapped the heroine and locked her in an attic — and even when she had the means to escape she didn't and instead fell in love with him. I won't name the book or the author, but suffice it to say, I have yet to read anything more by her.)
Maybe I'm willing to overlook what to others would be faults because Ms. James made me cry a little and laugh a lot with this book, which is rare enough that I treasure it when I find it.