Sunday 27 March 2016

#CBR8 Book 32: "When He Was Wicked" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 390 pages
Rating: 3 stars

Francesca Bridgerton marries John Stirling, the Earl of Kilmartin and they share a blissful two years together, until he suddenly dies in his sleep. To make matters worse, she's in the early stages of pregnancy and loses the baby shortly after. For support, she desperately wants to turn to Michael Stirling, John's cousin and best friend, but he's so overwhelmed that he can't really be there for her. Because Francesca miscarries, Michael is suddenly the heir to the Kilmartin title, a fate he never wanted. To make matters worse, he's madly in love with Francesca, and has been since he met her shortly before her wedding to John, but Michael now begins to fear he somehow brought about his cousin's untimely demise with his dreams of having Francesca for his own.

Unable to deal with his mix of grief and infatuation, Michael ships off to India for a few years, while the Stirling women, Francesca, John's mother and Michael's mother, take care of the Kilmartin estate. When he returns some years later, he discovers that Francesca is on the look-out for a new husband. She wants a child desperately and the only way to manage that is to remarry. Michael himself also needs to find a wife and begin fathering heirs to secure the title, but the only wife he wants is Francesca, who looks only sees him as her dead husband's best friend. Can he really stand by and watch her marry another man, losing her forever?

Francesca is the one of the Bridgerton siblings that features the least in the series. She shows up briefly in An Offer from a Gentleman and is occasionally thought of by one of her other siblings, but she's the sibling the readers know the least about when she finally gets her own book. Julia Quinn herself admits that she needed Francesca to be widowed to do something different, because otherwise, When He Was Wicked would have been her third book in a row with a spinster heroine in her late twenties. So yes, this book explores the possibility of finding love again, once the person you may have believed was the love of your life dies.

The book has the hero loving the heroine from afar for years and years, and silently pining for her without ever admitting his feelings. It has a heroine who bravely picks herself after losing her beloved husband and unborn child, managing her cousin-in-law's estate capably and protecting his interests, without really confiding the depths of her grief and loneliness to her in-laws or large, supportive family. Until this book was released on sale for the big online Bridgerton re-read, it was the ONLY book in the series I didn't already own, because I remembered it as the most underwhelming of the eight books. When I re-read Romancing Mister Bridgerton this time around, I discovered that I liked it a lot more than I had previously, and I really wanted to see if I had been too harsh on this book because I was misremembering it.

Sadly, that is not the case. Francesca and Michael, while by no means reprehensible characters, just do very little for me. Francesca is so reserved and while the readers are told she has a sly wit, I just didn't see any evidence of this. I just never felt as if I engaged with her as a character at all, and while I didn't hate her or anything, nor did I really care what happened to her, beyond sympathy that she was widowed so young and had to process a miscarriage while already grieving for her husband. The Francesca of some years later, who is ready to re-enter the marriage market just didn't interest me much. Then, once Michael is finally persuaded (partly through not-so-subtle suggestions from Francesca's brother Colin) to propose to her, Francesca keeps refusing to give him a clear answer, stringing him along in a way that frustrated me and made me start to actually dislike her.

Michael is a deeply honourable hero, even with his reputation as a rake. Of course, the reason he slept with all those other women was just to drive the image of Francesca out of his mind, since when he met her and fell in love, she was just about to marry his cousin and best friend. Does it make it better that the hero has been massively promiscuous in the past if he was secretly picturing the woman he couldn't have when he slept with them (it's mentioned that he tends to go for women who resemble Francesca)? He never breathes a word to his cousin or Francesca and hides his feelings expertly, even after John dies. When it becomes too difficult for him to veil his emotions, he removes himself to a country on the opposite side of the world, in the hopes that he may get over her. Even when she's been widowed for years, and both his and her family seem to think that it would be a very prudent and suitable match if he were to propose to her, he hesitates. Then he finally does get up the nerve to propose (without ever confessing his love) and when she rejects him, he tries to use all his finely honed rake skills to seduce her into saying yes instead.

I had remembered this book as Francesca and Michael having a lot of meaningless sex and that pretty much sums up the latter half of the book. The first half is all grief, unhappiness and unhappy infatuation. Mostly, Julia Quinn's books are witty and diverting little stories with a great cast of supporting characters and a lot of good banter. In this book, very few of the other Bridgerton family members appear and for the second half of the book, Francesca and Michael are off by themselves in Scotland. Given the choice between good banter and a lot of unresolved sexual tension and a whole lot of smexytimes without real emotional connection between the characters, I will take the first EVERY time. Compared to a lot of other historical romances, this isn't by any means a bad book, but even on a re-read, I think this is one of Quinn's weaker efforts, simply because I can't emotionally connect with the story or care for either of the protagonists. I don't regret paying $1.99 for it, but unless you are absolutely dead set on completing the series, I would recommend that new readers skip this.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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