Eloisa James is a fine writer, a sharp crafter of words, and a good storyteller. Her latest release, the fourth and final installment of the Essex sisters’ stories, Pleasure for Pleasure, is a first-rate example of each of those points: the narrative is charming, the dialog is rapier swift, and the telling both elegant and engaging. It’s odd then to also find, amongst all that good writing, little in the way of cohesive plot. Odder still to make that claim of a four hundred page book. But, the fact is, there’s not a lot of there there in Pleasure for Pleasure. And oddest yet, the book is thoroughly enjoyable despite it.
The plot is paper-thin and fairly frothy: in her first season, Josie Essex is labeled the Scottish Sausage, and plots to catch a husband among the ton despite her status as a pariah. The Earl of Mayne, or simply Mayne, fills his role as the Essex sisters’ convenient-man-to-have around by just being around and coming to Josie’s aid as needed. There’s an easily dispatched stumbling block or two: Mayne has the poor grace to show up in this installment with a fiancé, Josie runs afoul of a bit player wrongly elevated to bad guy status, and the ton is abuzz over the fictitious Earl of Hellgate’s suspiciously real memoirs. The success of Pleasure for Pleasure cannot and does not hinge on the story’s components, but rather, on James’ winning style and ability to breathe life into rich and fully dimensional characters.
Josie is witty and smart, but also marked by an insecurity that continually rears ups and – even at book’s end – is never fully conquered. She is at odds with her body, struggles to accept her flesh, and continually compares herself to thinner women. Unlike heroines who suffer from body dysmorphic issues, Josie sees her body as it is. Her struggle is to see the beauty that is there as well. Mayne is a leading man who, like other heroes, is rash, but unlike other heroes is rash with his heart and affections. That is not to say his feelings are entirely misplaced – as an early scene between Josie and Mayne displays wherein he willingly dons a dress to bolster Josie’s fragile ego – rather that Mayne doesn’t thoroughly understand himself. At story’s opening, Mayne has given up his playboy ways and intends to marry the beautiful, thin, perfect, Sylvie. Sylvie, in herself, is a triumph of a character. It would have been easy and route to make Sylvie horrible and clear enough to all that she is the wrong woman for Mayne. Instead, Sylvie is likeable, drawn with subtly and nuance. She’s a woman of her own mind, with her own thoughts.
In addition to the main romance, a secondary romance plays out between the unlikely pair of Darlington (the chap who hangs Josie with the swinish nickname) and Griselda (the sisters’ long time friend and chaperon). They make an unusual but engaging couple. Darlington is caustic, Griselda’s actions are brazen, each is at a point of change and wanting nothing more than to be loved. With Darlington on the path to redemption (he is not unworthy of it) and love, the villain that emerges is Thurman. One time friend to Darlington, Thurman is a pretender to the thrown that should be Darlington’s. Quite without motivation, Thurman fixates on Josie and comes to blame her for the loss of his friends and position. He is an ineffectual bad guy due to a lack of action and, worse, a lack of a reason to be.
The many and varied characters are a multitude of riches that lift the plot up even while threatening to drown the proceedings with their very numbers. The story struggles to settle into the quick gait it should. The focus early on flits between Josie and Mayne to Griselda and Darlington to Thurman to, well, it seems everyone gets a turn in establishing the story. Mayne and Josie’s time together is insignificant for the first two-thirds of the book, and as James is too methodical a storyteller to allow great leaps of love to happen without the much needed time together, Mayne and Josie feelings develop slowly.
As always, James uses literature and romance for the crucibles they are and recasts stories and characters to fit her means. As such, Pleasure for Pleasure features staunchly traditional romance roles – the rake and virgin with a considerable age difference between the two – mixed liberally with key points from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The refashioning succeeds and marries nicely with James’ refusal to hand feed the reader. A working knowledge of Shakespeare will enhance the read, but it isn’t necessary to stay abreast with either the characters or the story. What is good to keep in mind, however, is that while James is never oblique, she demands the reader keep up with her. The signs, turning points, and denouements are subtle, but they are there.
Pleasure for Pleasure is charming and enjoyable. Further, it’s a shining example of how a strong narrative voice and fully developed characters can buoy a lackluster plot. James writes jaunty, delightful romance novels, and Pleasure for Pleasure is no exception to that.
You can visit Eloisa here and purchase this book here and here.