Review: Enchanting Pleasures by Eloisa James (2002)

Pleasures, Book 3

Heat Factor: On the steamy side of vanilla

Character Chemistry: A+ case of opposites attract

Plot: Too much

Overall: Beautiful prose, great characters, fabulous clothes

Eloisa James writes wonderful characters. Many of their traits are multifaceted, which means they feel like real people, rather than perfect specimens with incidental quirks that we’re watching going about their lives.

Gabby, our heroine, is kind, selfless and loving. On the other hand, she’s impetuous – she loves too hard and too quickly, which tends to get her into trouble. She talks too much, making her nickname extremely appropriate, which sometimes works in her favor and sometimes really really doesn’t. She’s naïve.

Quill, our hero, is stoic to the extreme. He doesn’t like sharing his emotions, and is dismissive of his family. He is extremely self-contained. He is a successful investor, meaning he is smart, competent, and a workaholic.

One thing these opposites have in common, besides the strong mutual lust they feel, is that neither has any compunction about lying, if lying will help the other person. As Gabby lays out her philosophy to a child very early on: “sometimes a fib is permissible if you can make someone feel happy.” As you might imagine, this leads to both of them telling egregious whoppers to one another. Quill tells Gabby that he’s in love with her, so she’ll marry him instead of his brother. Gabby, even more grievously, drugs Quill without his consent in an attempt to cure his sex-induced migraines.

You would think that the lies they tell each other – for the benefit of the marriage, naturally – would provide the central conflict to the story, but there’s actually a lot going on in this book. There are actually four separate plotlines, which means that some of them are quite undeveloped:

  1. Gabby is engaged to Quill’s brother, Peter. She is sent back to England from India to marry him, and fancies herself in love with him. Upon arrival, she and Quill are attracted to each other. Even after kissing Quill, she insists that she’s in love with Peter and will marry him. Also, Peter doesn’t want to get married, to anyone, but especially not someone who is gauche and badly dressed. How to solve this awkward little triangle? About halfway through the book, Quill and Peter decide that Quill will do the family duty – hence the lies to convince Gabby that this is the best plan.  
  2. Quill gets debilitating 3-day migraines after he engages in repetitive motion, such as sex or riding a horse. Makes consummating a marriage awkward. And also causes lots of fights about medical intervention between the newlyweds. And leads directly to Gabby drugging her husband.
  3. Side plot #1: love story between Lucien Boch, a handsome French widower, and Emily Ewing, a disgraced woman pretending to be a widow. Lucien had appeared as a side character in James’ previous books, so it makes sense that she would want him to find true love, but it feels tacked on. There’s also a bit in here about a young girl with whom Gabby traveled from India and who Emily has adopted.
  4. Side plot #2: Indian politics, involving a slow-witted young Indian prince and the machinations of the East India Company. Gabby is right in the middle, and lying her butt off about it the whole time. Despite her central role in this side plot, it doesn’t do much to develop her character or reveal anything about her relationship with Quill.

The shift in conflict between the first and second half generally works, but it does mean that the climactic moment between Gabby and Quill – the aforementioned drugging – does not take on the heft that it could otherwise, if the dynamic of little lies for one’s own good had been built up more consistently throughout the book.

Regardless of plot, this book is a really fun read because James’ prose is so lush. She is especially skilled at describing clothing. The reader gets a real sense of what clothes look like. In addition, these clothing descriptions are revelatory in terms of character. Take, for example, an orange dress that Gabby is given as a stop-gap by the most fashionable modiste in London.

The gown had a high neck with an insert of brown velvet and faint brown stripes down the skirt. It was as unlike Gabby’s starched white gown as possible, given that it moved in the faintest breath of air. The only thing keeping the skirt from floating up was the line of fur at the hem.

To Gabby’s eyes, it positively screamed sophistication. “I –“ Gabby took a small breath, all that was allowed given her tight corset. “I have always thought that orange was a pretty color, Madame.”

“Orange! That is orange blossom, not orange! I do not compose in such a color,” Madame Carême responded scornfully. “And the very best chinchilla fur around the hem,” she added.

But Gabby was getting used to her sharp tongue. “My only fear is that there’s a bit too much of me for this lovely gown.” Gabby felt as if the whalebone corset was pushing her breasts up around her collarbone. The gown seemed to strain in the front section.

Compare Gabby’s reaction to Peter’s (note that Peter is a noted arbiter of what is fashionable, and really really really cares about this stuff):

Gabby looked like a pumpkin: a round, round pumpkin. The cloth of her gown was ready to split around her chest. In fact, Peter was mortified to find out just how much of a chest the girl had. Women shouldn’t be so well-endowed. He shuddered to think what his future wife would look like in an evening gown, without fabric to cover up all that flesh. As Gabby walked before him, her skirts bunched at the hips, and the fur at the bottom of her gown swung back and forth. Her stride is too long, Peter thought. She does not walk like a lady.

Or either of their reaction to Quill’s, when he first sees Gabby in the too-tight orange gown:

Quill swallowed. What kind of gown had Gabby obtained from Madame Carême? He had never seen such an enticing garment in his life. It looked like something a courtesan might wear. From the back it perfectly outlined the rounded curve of her bottom. A curve that was longing, begging, to be cupped in Quill’s hand.

And the bodice of the gown was even worse. The flimsy muslin seemed to have been molded to her chest.

Each description allows us to better picture Gabby in her orange blossom (NOT orange!) ensemble, but it also tells us more about the three actors in the central love triangle and what they think about the world. Gabby shows some physical discomfort, but really, she’s just her naïve, exuberant self, glowing away about how beautiful the dress is. Peter focuses on the sophistication – or lack thereof – that the gown highlights. And Quill is all sex, all the time. Obviously, here is our true romantic hero.

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