Review: The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

I think I remember the story of the “Ugly Duckling.” I had a set of those Little Golden Books when I was a kid. SPOILERS AHEAD. Basically, a little cygnet egg (holy crap, did you know that baby swans are called cygnets?) rolls out of its nest and makes its way to a duck’s nest where it cracks and the little cygnet finds itself with a bunch of squawking ducklings. The baby “duckling” looks different and sounds different from its “siblings,” so it’s bullied mercilessly. The mommy duck realizes that this little “duckling” can’t possibly belong to her brood, so she shoves it away. The little “duckling” cries and goes around the farm, asking other animals, “Are you my mommy?” (The cow’s like, “Wut? Get away from me, you weirdo.”) until it reaches the pond and sees a bunch of beautiful swans. The mommy swan sees the ugly “duckling” and cries, “My baby!” And then the “ugly” duckling turns into a beautiful swan, much to the dismay of the other ducks who made fun of it. True story: The only part in “Lilo and Stitch” that made me cry was when Stitch destroyed Lilo’s favorite book, which is the “Ugly Duckling,” and Lilo kicked him out and Stitch felt really shitty about it and cried, clutching the torn book in his arms. I hate it when books get treated like shit; it breaks my heart something fierce.


The Plot as I Understood It James Ryburn, Earl of Islay and future duke of Ashbrook, is in a bit of a pickle. He is nineteen years old and his despicable wastrel of a father has laid waste to the Ashbrook fortune and is on his way to decimating the money of his seventeen-year-old ward, Theodora Saxby (she’d like to be called “Theo,” but James insists on calling her “Daisy”). James has a devil of a time controlling his boorish temper and doesn’t hesitate to call his father a piece of shit and has half-a-mind to consign the worthless dumbass and the duchy to hell. The duke orders James to marry Theodora in order to cover his perfidy and James, who is really fond of Daisy—even though everyone says she’s soooooo ugly—wants nothing to do with this plan and would like nothing more than to go off and be a laborer somewhere, but he knows in his heart that he can’t abandon Daisy to an awful penniless fate. The ton, after all, thinks Daisy has a gigantic fortune and it would go very badly for her if she were to be snapped up by a mercurial fortune-hunter who’ll soon find out that she no longer has any money. Especially because she’s soooo ugly.

Theo is aware that she’s not what the ton may call classically attractive, but she knows her strengths and is crazy about fashion. She knows exactly how to play up her attributes in order to draw attention away from her less than desirable visage, but her mother insists on dressing her like the other pretty little debutantes and thus she is ignored and set aside for the prettier girls. What’s worse is she has the BIGGEST crush on the wittiest (read: bitchiest), well-dressed boy in the ton and she’s convinced they’re meant to be together and they’ll make bitchily make fun of everyone else and talk about fashion forever (…um, wait a minute), but he doesn’t even knows she’s alive. Time to come up with a genius plan! Her ridiculously good-looking foster brother James is one of the most eligible bachelors in the ton and sought after by everyone in the marriage mart, so if she could just convince him to play along and pretend he’s interested in her, she’s super-sure that she can get her crush’s attention. Surprisingly, James—who’s always been her really good friend—is willing to go along with her plan, only much to Theo’s chagrin (and delight), James is acting like he REALLY likes her. Before Theo can even process what’s happening, the two of them are making out in the garden during a party and the Prince of Regent is walking in on them along with everyone else and James is suddenly declaring that he’s always been in love with her and wants to marry her. Say what?! Oh man, when a plan comes together, it REALLY comes together!

After a hastily thrown wedding ceremony, James and Theo are married and Theo could not be more thrilled. She can finally stop dressing like a debutante and oh! she has a super-cute husband, who seems to truly adore her (which is weird, because he’s always treated her like a sister before). James, to his credit, is truly in love with Daisy and forcing himself to believe that this is good and it can totally work out and Daisy never has to know that he married her because his dad forced him to. After all, it isn’t until he’s about to marry Daisy that he realizes he loves her, so he owes his father that much. James also ensures that full control of the estate will go to him upon his marriage to Daisy and he himself will make sure that Daisy will be taken care of, no matter what. He and Daisy enjoy two glorious days of honeymoon coital fuckery through the pink gauzy haze of first love and we see that it might work out for these two crazy kids because they’re willing to work together to get the estates solvent and profitable again, with James acquiescing that Daisy is better than him at figures and Daisy deferring to James on the burlier stuff like sowing the fields and shit like that. But one day, they stumble into the library for some more sexual intercourse and the Duke, Jimmy’s dad, walks in and catches Daisy on her knees in front of James giving his twig-and-berries a how’s-your-father with her mouth. A better man with a marble and a half inside his brain-pan would have discreetly backed out and let the lovebirds stew in their embarrassment (THAT’S WHAT YOU GET FOR HAVING SEX SOMEWHERE WHERE ANYONE CAN WALK IN, ESPECIALLY IF THAT ANYONE INCLUDES YOUR FATHER-IN-LAW BECAUSE HE ALSO LIVES THERE) and never mentioned the incident to anyone, but James’ dad is a special kind of asshole. What happens next made me cringe so hard, utterly horrified, because OH-MY-FUCKING-GOD WHAT A TOOL. James’ dad actually walks up to him, even as James is gawking at him—pants around ankles and rapidly wilting dangly-goblin flapping against his naked thigh—and congratulates him for getting a blowie-job (that’s what the kids call it, right?) from his ugly-ass wife, especially when wives don’t really do that kind of thing and lordly people usually have to get it from their whorish mistresses, so ugly-ass Theo must be so super-grateful that James married her ugly-ass that she’d give him blow-jays at the drop of a napkin. (GOOD THING that the title of the book is “The Ugly Duchess” and not “The Ugly Countess” ’cause that means the HORRIBLE DUKE is going to die and James will become the new duke). On top of that, Daisy discovers that James only proposed to her because his father gave him no choice, so in her fury, she kicks out her father-in-law and tells James that she never ever ever wants to see him ever again and that he could die for all she cares. Despondent, James takes a ship that Daisy generously gives him and sails far, far away from England to become a pirate.

Your Hero …record scratch. I’m sorry, the ONLY heir to a dukedom was allowed to go become a pirate? Is that even kosher? Weren’t there laws against only heirs going off to certain death or something, especially when there will be no one else who can inherit the title? I DECLARE SHENANIGANS. Anyway, James decides to stay away for SEVEN YEARS (just long enough to his wife declare him dead and a distant cousin to lay claim to the dukedom) to become the Dread PiratePrivateer RobertsJack Hawk with the help of a cousin, who just happens to be—in the great seven seas and all—the first one to try and pirate the shit out of James’ ship. What a coincidence! The cousin decides to take James Jack Hawk under his wing and good ole Jimmy takes it upon himself to shave his head, get a poppy tattooed under his eye, and get Incredible Hulk-buff. But fear not, soft-hearted, romance-novel-reading ladies! Captain Jack Hawk doesn’t make women and children walk the plank and he only raid the ships of bad pirates. In fact, they’re doing a service to England that’s sure to get them tons of accolades and medals from the prince himself. If Captain Jack Hawk ever decides to go back to England, that is. After all, he’s got a tattoo under his eye now and he did it so he wouldn’t ever be accepted in polite society ever again and because he’s never going to be a lordly person again and likely never see his old ball-and-chain ever again, he’s just going to take it upon himself to have sex with all the ladies he and his fellow privateers come across on ports. It’s not like he’ll ever see Daisy again, right?

The Stone-Cold Fox Theo is doing just fine, thank you very much. After single-handedly saving the Ashbury estate from certain ruin and starting up not ONE but TWO successful crafts businesses, Theo decides to go to Paris and live there for a while, like Blair Waldorf, becoming a fashion icon of sorts and forgetting she was ever married to James Ryburn, not that she even knows whether he’s dead or alive because he’s never bothered to tell her otherwise. And it’s not like she’s bitter about it. Much. Anyway, she’s living the life she’s always wanted even though her mom wants her to forgive James because she doesn’t want Theo growing old and lonely and bitter by herself and James really did seem like he cared for Theo. Theo, to her credit, is not all the way stone-cold against the idea of getting back together with James. If he would only send a letter. Or a pigeon, or something. Though the ton now views her as a phoenix of sorts who rose from the ashes to become a sexy-ass fox and purveyor of good taste, Theo still thinks about James, wondering if she could find in her now ice-cold heart to forgive him and take him back. If he ever shows up. Or if he’s not lost at sea and dead. Yes, Theo was really, really mad at him because he totally betrayed her—the jackass—but she didn’t expect that he would REALLY, for REAL leave. She thought maybe he would just sulk for a little bit, lick his proverbial wounds, then beg and plead with her to take him back. He did say he loved her even though the premise behind the marriage was a big ole lie. Still, it’s been almost SEVEN YEARS to the minute since he left and maybe it’s time for Theo to have him declared dead so she can get on with her life and his distant cousin, who’s become her BFF and fellow fashion fiend, can take over the dukedom. After all, if James really means to come back and is still alive out there somewhere, he would have sent word already. Right?!

SPOILER ALERT James comes back LITERALLY minutes before the courts declare him dead. OH-EM-GEE, I KNOH, RITE?!?

Oh My Word Captain Jack Sparrow James Ryburn, Duke of Ashbury, makes a triumphant return and oooooh, he’s so brown and buff and primitive and sinfully delicious-looking and he’s definitely oiling up Theo’s secret hidden parts like that mother just got sprayed with butter-flavored PAM, even as Theo insists to herself that there’s no way she can take him back since he’s a pirate and probably killed people and ew! he’s got a tattoo under his eye, for Prinny’s sake. There’s no way James can possibly fit into her life now. The ton admires and follows her around; she’s a successful businesswoman; she runs her life on schedule like a well-greased clock. And yet here is James, huge and gruff and gravel-voiced, hulking all over her, forcing her to acknowledge that he is her husband. What’s a cool-as-a-frozen-cucumber society maven and fashion pioneer to do?

James, for the most part, changes for the better. Mostly. Before Theo/Daisy punts him out of England, James is restless, uncomfortable in his own skin, angry at the world. At a meeting with an estate manager in the library, James sits in a corner, seething because he’s frustrated at not being able to go outside and work with his hands and just hearing about numbers gives him a headache. He knows his dad sucks at running the estate and the dukedom, but doesn’t know how to fix it himself. He is just another pretty boy who dropped out of college because he can’t sit still in a classroom, whining that his life sucks and no one ever asked him if he wanted to be a duke. Blah-blah-blah, handsome privileged white boy emo-cakes. And oh-noes, because his father enjoyed drinking and wenching, James himself pledged to be something different and not be a dipsomaniac whoremonger. And yet what does he do the moment he shaves his head and gets a tattoo (I think I dated a couple of these guys in college)? He decides to break his marriage vows and sleep with a bunch of ladies. For the record, James had only been with ONE woman before he marries Theo/Daisy and she wouldn’t even let him play with her boobies and touch her pearly shell with his “dirty hands.” Is whoremongering a required checkpoint in a romance hero’s evolution and character development? I’m just askin’. I’ve noticed that the more ladies a “gentleman” has bedded in romance novels, the more desirable he becomes. James loses the pretty-boy good looks, gets paranormal romance-buff, acquires a gravelly voice, ditches the emo white boy whining, but he still needed to put some notches on his bed post just so we can see him as a sexual creature? Boo. There’s an Eloisa James character who is a virgin when he meets the heroine and the heroine is the only person with whom he has sexual intercourse. That shit is romantic. Can’t we make the virgin hero a thing, please? Just once, I don’t want to shudder in disgust when the two romantic leads do it, thinking about all the other whoring the hero has done just before he gets with the heroine. Does anyone know how effective a “french letter” was compared to a modern-day condom? And he was a pirate, man! Those guys are… (shudder) not very picky… I’m serious, why is sexual promiscuity in the hero a sexy, attractive thing, but the lady has to stay pure like Penelope in Odysseus? Sure, I get that James really thought that he and Theo/Daisy weren’t going to see each other again, but in the beginning of the book, when his father tells him that he could just have a mistress once he’s got Theo/Daisy stashed away, James is vehement in saying he would be faithful to Daisy because he could “never” do “that” to her. Pffft… I guess never means two years, eh, James?

In contrast, our heroine Theo/Daisy both flourishes and falters in James’ absence. While she proves herself to be a shrewd business owner and fulfills her wish to become a fashion pioneer despite her unfashionable looks, Theo also becomes stagnant in her emotional growth. Yes, she is finally respected by society—quite a feat for a woman who, according to gossip, was abandoned by her husband after 2 days for being so ugly—and yet she also retreats into a shell that didn’t exist before James’ abandonment of her. Prior to her marriage to James, Theo is happy—a bit insecure, perhaps, but happy, nonetheless—precocious girl, obsessed with crushes and fashion. She’s just an average teenage girl with a teenage girl’s preoccupation. Without James, she is mired down by her neuroses and crippling idiosyncrasies, insisting on an OCD-like way of performing rituals. It is only when James returns that Theo comes to life again, shucking off the neuroses that serve as her protection for seven years; she needed to keep things in order just so she could keep her mental and emotional sanity. She develops into a swan NOT because she’s a fashion maven, but because James comes back and basically proclaims, “I don’t care what you assholes say: Theo IS beautiful, so there.” I’m totally meh about that.

My other complaint about this book is the infamous Sagging Middle. And boy, it was SEVEN YEARS LONG. The first half of the book is great—Eloisa James really excels at dialogue and the bantering between the hero and the heroine. It’s fast-paced, exciting, and fun, even though there’s a pall hanging overhead because YOU ALREADY KNOW that these two young, happy lovebirds won’t be happy for long… and they’ll be separated for seven years. And the separation FELT long. The middle focuses on both Theo and James growing up and coming into their own, but for the most part, it felt really slow. The energy of the book comes from the chemistry of Theo and James and the way they clash and clasp together and they’re separated for what felt like a hundred pages. It immediately picks up again once James returns to Theo’s side in England, but by then, the pacing goes too fast. JAMES LEFT HIS WIFE TO BECOME A PIRATE FOR SEVEN YEARS and it basically takes two, maybe three days for the two of them to get back together. If it hadn’t for the cutesy prologue at the end of the book whereupon James is shown to be a devoted, adoring husband, I would have been sincerely put off by this book. Theo TOOK THE REIGNS of the estate, made it profitable again, and rebuilt everything, while James decided to play Disney pirate; then he comes back, tells a couple of sob stories, and everything is cool again? Oh hell no.

All and all, I still really enjoyed this book because I’m an Eloisa James fan girl and I especially love her dialogue and lively prose. The beginning is superb; the middle SAGS like over-used upholstery, and the third act goes a little quickly for my taste, but I enjoyed James and Theo. Can’t wait for the next book in this “fairy tale” series!

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