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Eloisa James – An Affair Before Christmas

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An affair to remember, because it is between a husband and his wife.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 386
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-24554-1
First Published: 2007
Date Reviewed: 20th November 2013
Rating: 4/5

Poppy and the Duke of Fletcher have been married for four years. They started their wedded life in love, and they may still be in love, but the marriage has gone sour. Does Poppy love him? – Fletcher does not know. Certainly she hates having to be intimate with him. With Poppy’s mother ruling her daughter’s head, and a society that expects a man to be unfaithful, it’s going to be a difficult journey if there is to be no divorce.

An Affair Before Christmas is the second book in James’s hilarious duchess series that sees the continuation of the many couples’ lives in the background whilst focusing on the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher.

James’s characters are, once again, magnificent. It is true that these Georgian nobles might indeed scandalise even the most scandalous of real-life Georgians, but it is rather obvious from the start that James’s work isn’t your standard historical romance. The ladies and gentlemen do everything you ‘expect’ them to do, and then go and behave particularly ahead of their time in a way that isn’t quite unbelievable, but is certainly a whole lot more entertaining than reality. Once in a while the entire plot will get a little too silly, but again, that is half the fun. Make no mistake – the covers may suggest a lot of sex and nudity, and that’s really quite correct, but it is far from the main takeaway of the book.

Whereas Roberta of Desperate Duchesses had her own mind but was rather na├»ve, Poppy’s naivety is similar yet vastly different. In Poppy there is a budding scientist just waiting to be allowed into university, which of course will never happen; a woman who if she can just separate her mother’s thoughts from her own, will be quite the popular person. She may be silly, but she’s endearing all the same.

The Duke of Fletcher isn’t far behind, indeed he is only slightly less well drawn than Poppy simply because as a man in a male-led society he already has an advantage. The cautious reader will love Fletch, the handsome duke who could have anyone he chooses but is not interested in being unfaithful, and the way his success in his career is aided by Poppy, even though she actually has little knowledge, is particularly appealing for the modern reader. Make no mistake – James writes for the modern reader, no matter how obvious that may sound.

The writing is great, and befitting of the time, if not quite historical. There are a few errors, modern American terms that could be categorised as certain English dialects but not ones that are relevant to the characters, but they are used more often in the narration rather than in dialogue.

The themes are both historical and eternal – it is less likely today that a woman would know nothing of the pleasures to be had during sex, but it is all too common for communication to break down in a marriage. Poppy’s mother is both the Georgian matriarch would believes a woman should obey her husband, and an example of the eternal stereotype of the interfering mother-in-law. All these clauses come together to form the bulk of the content.

However the themes do take their toll on the narrative. The romance in this book, the active love between the characters (as opposed to the feelings themselves), does not start until the book is nearing its end. The miscommunication is there throughout, and Poppy’s first (bad) ideas of how to deal with her husband dominate the book, leaving very little time for the couple once they come to realise what went wrong. Of course it is lovely (and predictable, which is why this reviewer isn’t worried about spoilers) that the book ends with the happy couple, but when so much time later on is taken up by the secondary characters it is hard not to wonder why the book was marketed as Poppy and Fletch’s story. This ultimately means that sex ends up taking what’s left of that short space of time which, while expected, does mean the resolution is even shorter. That said, given the reason for the estrangement, perhaps it makes sense – it’s just that it doesn’t particularly make for a great story structure.

Beyond the mother’s rule, which, yes, does seem strange given the four years, there is as aspect of Poppy’s lack of desire that may irritate the reader, and the pun here is most definitely intended – Poppy suffers an allergy that renders a lot of her lack silly. But it does depend on the reader. If you can believe the miscommunication would extend to Poppy’s silence over it you may be okay, likewise if you view James’s decision as one concerned with comedic value. Otherwise it may just render the book too over the top, the pun here not intended, to continue.

It should be noted that whilst Christmas is specified on the cover, the book isn’t confined to the holiday season. While it may seem better when read beside a tree, there is enough of the story based in summer to make it an option at any time of year. The book could be read as a standalone, but the reader will appreciate it much more if it’s read in sequence.

An Affair Before Christmas isn’t quite as strong as the first book, but it is well worth the read. The characterisation is brilliant, the comedy is laugh-out-loud, and it’s good to have the same background setting written about from another angle. The secondary stories mean that you’re looking forward to the next book very early on, which in this case isn’t a bad thing.

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Literary Feline

December 16, 2013, 11:22 pm

This sounds like a delightful book, Charlie.

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