Desperate Duchesses (Desperate Duchesses Series #1)

Desperate Duchesses - Eloisa James 2.5 to 3 starsI truly enjoyed Eloisa James' series about the Essex Sisters, which is why I decided to start in on another of her series... but my review on this book is rather mixed, I'm afraid. I have to admit to skimming this book rather than reading it through.Ms. James uses chess as one of her main metaphors along with her usual nod towards Shakespeare, Donne, and other popular literary and poetic prose of the time. And her premise provides a lot of promise... but I felt that promise fell flat, mired down with too much detail and story... too much plot. I literally found myself skipping ahead through pages and chapters at a time to get back into the meat of the story. Perhaps in doing so, I missed important parts of the story; it's just that they failed to hold my interest. I almost gave up on the book entirely, until I decided to skim.Roberta is a heroine unlike any other that I've read so far in the historical romance genre. She's got the usual characteristics, but what makes her unique is that her father, a marquess, is an eccentric poet. Roberta's mother died when she was very young, and her father has taken any number of notorious mistresses, refusing to be in the least discreet with his affections. Because of her father's outlandish behavior, Roberta's found herself kept away from the Seasons in London (her father fears her being taken in by a rake like himself) and the object of ridicule and curiosity, as one of the local broadsheets has cartooned her into a hump-backed, unibrow in desperate need of a husband.At a ball, Roberts decides she's fallen in love with Lord Villiers, a man in his 30s who dresses almost like a dandy, yet has a delicious air of mystery and danger about him. He's the Catch who's never been caught. So Roberta launches herself onto a distant cousin, Jemma, in London to bring her out for a Season, so that Roberta can capture Villiers. Except that Lady Jemma, a duchess, is quite the scandal (or so it seems), and she's just returned from an 8year trip to Paris. Her husband, Elijah, is a prominent member of the House, and he's much more interested in politics than his wife... which means that when Jemma welcomes not only Roberta, but Jemma's brother Damon with his 6 yr old illegitimate son, Elijah is seeing red, afraid of what this will all do to his political power and reputation. Of course, Damon turns his attentions to Roberta. Why? My guess is that because Roberta makes it quite clear that she's not interested in anyone other than Villiers. And Damon has quite his own reputation as a rake. Villiers is intrigued by Roberta, but he's much more intrigued by Jemma, who is a chess master. Chess seems to be Villiers' grand passion... that, and debauching whom he chooses without apology. Villiers likes the Challenge. And he challenges Jemma to a game of chess, which includes playing chess in her bedroom. Her husband, Elijah, and Villiers may have been childhood friends, but they are friends no longer. And while Elijah doesn't seem to care two whits for his wife, he doesn't want her to have or flaunt an affair with Villiers. Here's the even more tangled part of this plot: Jemma's good friend begs Jemma to take revenge on Villiers. It seems that her friend had an intimate physical encounter with Villiers in a carriage - she threw herself at him trying to get her own husband's attention. Her husband, like Villiers, was obsessed with chess. And after this encounter, Villiers publicly scorned her friend in the most unkind way; and then he challenged her husband to a public chess match and set very high money stakes on the outcome. Villiers managed to make the man think he was winning, and then Villiers swooped in an won the match. The poor man went home and shot himself. And so his widow begs Jemma for justice and revenge. (Are you exhausted yet?)Jemma can think of no better revenge than to best Villiers in chess, lead Villiers on into thinking she'll have an affair with him, and then net him into a marriage with Roberta. Except it's never quite that easy, is it?--------I had several problems with this book. I appreciated the chess metaphors. I appreciated that several of these characters are more raw and rough in their manners -- they are the ton, and they do as they choose without apology. Being earls and duchesses gives them license where others would be censored. And to me, this is probably closer to what the ton was really like.And what keeps us reading is when Ms. James reveals to us is that, underneath, these people are truly people. * Jemma loves her husband, Elijah. But early in their marriage, she found him in his office, on his desk in the middle of physical relations with his mistress. Jemma was so hurt, she fled to Paris and lived a rather decadent lifestyle, hoping that Elijah would love her enough to follow her and bring her home. But he didn't.* Roberta grew up in a home where her father's mistresses were kind towards her and shared as much as they could about the secrets about intimacies between a man and a woman without being too vulgar or graphic. She's tired of the fluff of poems and romance... she wants a man who is respected and solid and in control. A man whom the ton won't ridicule. Roberta seeks control, but she's naive enough to not fully understand what that means. She's quite willing to throw away her virginity to Damon when Villiers tells her it's inconvenient to him. He tells her exactly what their marriage will be like: he will go his way, she will go hers. But he cautions her to take precautions until he has his heir and a spare -- no cuckoos in the nest. And in her naivete, she decides the attraction with Damon is useful to gain the sexual experience she thinks she needs to truly trap Villiers. Even while she's "accepting" Villiers' picture of their life together, Roberta is trying to figure out how to make him faithful to him. What irony!* Villiers is growing weary of his own reputation, even is he won't admit it to himself. He's the kind who always looks for a new challenge, the next thing... and it's why he's lonely. Roberta intrigues him with her so-called worldliness, and yet he finds himself irritated and almost jealous when he discovers her flings with Damon. Despite knowing that it was he who drove her into Damon's arms. Jemma is his real challenge -- he truly believes he could fall in love with her and thinks of the coup he could also score against his old childhood frenemy, Elijah. But it never quite comes to pass...* Damon... he grows to love Roberta, no doubt. But there's so much that remains a mystery about him. (Perhaps more is revealed in the pages I skimmed?) But he starts this entire affair being a bit bored with his life and also seeking a new challenge. And Roberta's continued spurning of his flirtations fans his flame. It just seems all too... mysterious. I truly wanted to read more about Jemma and Elijah. It seemed to much potential there for revealing their true feelings and coming to a better understanding was thrown away. Again, perhaps I missed that part in my skimming through what seemed so. many. pages. of. nothing.Roberta's father could have been delightful, but he seemed to much of a caricature - too clownish and too embarassing. I found myself flinching whenever he was in a scene. Except when he was with Teddy, Damon's 6 yr old. Then he seemed appropriate.But I didn't care much about Damon and Roberta. Damon seemed to mysterious... he revealed his desire and then his love for Roberta, but he didn't seem to reveal much more about himself. And Roberta was too wrapped up in herself and her pursuit of Villiers to be terribly interesting. Which is a shame, because there was such a contrast of young miss and old-soul about her.And I grew weary of the plot-within-a-plot-within-a-plot. Too many twists and turns... too many agendas. It just made for way too many pages and buried the heart of the story in dialogue and discussion.I haven't decided whether to pursue the next book in the series or not yet.... I'll think on it awhile.