Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review: When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn

When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons #6)
By: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Harper Collins


The first time Michael Stirling saw Francesca Bridgerton he fell deeply, irrevocably, in love. Which was dashed inconvenient as the setting marking this momentous occasion in his life was a supper celebrating her imminent engagement to his cousin John, the Earl of Kilmartin. As John is not only his cousin but his closest friend, more akin to the brother he never had than simply a cousin, Michael resigned himself to a life of abject misery and assured damnation. For while he'd had his share of dalliances with women in the past, to fall in love with his cousin's wife would assuredly prove to be his most fatal sin. For this affliction could never be cured, and so he resolved to never let John or Francesca suspect his true feelings, forever playing the role of dearest friend and confidante. When the unthinkable happens and Michael finds himself thrust into the wholly unexpected role of heir, his carefully-constructed facade of devil-may-care, happily aimless womanizer crumbles, the guilt of his closely-held but never acted upon love threatening to bury him under its overwhelming weight. Years pass and he settles into the role of earl, but just when he thinks he's come to terms with the cruel twist Fate played with his emotions, Francesca's undiminished hold on his heart may once again prove his undoing.

When Francesca married John Stirling, his cousin and closest friend quickly became her own friend and confidante, never suspecting that Michael's feelings for her were more than that of an older brother. Her comfortable existence is shattered with John's sudden death, sending her reeling into the arms of her best friend -- and unable to understand how John's death seems to have shattered her once close friendship with Michael. Years pass, and as distance dulls the pain of her profound loss, Francesca begins to think of marrying again. However, she never expected his reaction to her decision or her new, and profoundly unsettling reaction, to his once-familiar person.  But when lines are crossed and unspoken feelings are brought to light, can Francesca come to terms with the fact that her second chance at love may have been right in front of her all along?

When He Was Wicked is something of a departure from the frothy, breezy style of the previous five Bridgerton novels. Taking place concurrently with Romancing Mister Bridgerton and To Sir Phillip, With Love, Francesca's story is the first tale of second love to find a Bridgerton sibling. It's at once more somber in tone, facing the issue of grief head-on, running the gamut of emotions that come with loss from shock to anger and everything in between, as well as quite a there is a lot of repressed sexual tension within these pages. All of this repressed physical and emotional baggage, along with the requisite guilt, made this Bridgerton installment a slow go for me -- this reading is at least the third time I started the book in the last two years but the first time to finish it.

Generally I'm in favor of any romance that has a solid foundation of friendship and intellectual compatibility, but here Quinn takes the conceit a bit too far for my tastes -- friendship is the biggest barrier to Francesca and Michael's happy ending. I get that proximity blinds Francesca to romantic possibilities with Michael and the same makes acting on his long-hidden feelings an anathema to Michael, but one honest conversation could have avoided chapters (not to mention years) of guilty angst and self-loathing. It's a fine line to walk to be sure, but relying so heavily on avoidance of the issue at hand, the undeniable attraction and compatibility staring them blindingly in the face, led to a level of anger en route to the resolution of their issues that was uncomfortably out of step with the other Bridgerton books.

I'm really quite torn here, because since I discovered Quinn's writing and the inimitable Bridgertons, I've come to love each member of this quirky, warm-hearted family. And I really do like Michael and Francesca...but there is a point in the final quarter or so of the novel where their romance threatens to  turn ugly. Michael, freed from his guilt in regards to assuming John's place, single-mindedly, aggressively determines to seduce Francesca into marrying him. And while she's a willing participant, the manipulation that colors the dissolution of the unrequited tension between them sours an otherwise wholly compatible, sizzling romance between equals.

My favorite part of this novel involved the irrepressible Colin Bridgerton serving as a catalyst bringing the simmering romance between Michael and Francesca to fruition. Colin has been one of my favorite characters since the beginning of the series, full of wit and charm and here, on the cusp of his very one happily ever after. His carefree charm belies great depth of character and insight, and seeing him shock Michael out of his state of emotional stasis is a huge emotional payoff.

Much like its predecessor, To Sir Phillip, With Love, here Quinn grapples with issues of great emotional weight but with less deftness of hand. In the previous novel, issues of depression and suicide and the emotional ramifications on those left behind are handled with a raw frankness and depth that makes the tale all the more compelling for its emotional honesty. The pieces of a compelling emotional sequel are in place here, this time centered on the raw scar left by the sudden loss of a spouse and close friend, but the choice to dwell on guilt and avoidance, until honest passion is very nearly transformed into physical obsession threatens to cheapen Michael and Francesca's story.

There is the seed of a beautiful lesson here, a powerful reminder that hope and happiness are conscious, powerful choices that can shatter the stronghold of grief and loss. Living fully after loss, as Michael and Francesca finally realize, isn't a punishment, doesn't dismiss their loss, but rather can be a way in which they collectively honor John's memory. But for all the weight these heavy subjects warrant, the level of guilt and never-ending denial within these pages, however honest the intent, faintly sours an otherwise solid exploration of fresh chances and second love. While this is a weaker offering in the Bridgerton series, I'm not sorry I finally read it, and I look forward to reading the final siblings' stories soon!

About the book:

In every life there is a turning point.

A moment so tremendous, so sharp and breathtaking, that one knows one's life will never be the same. For Michael Stirling, London's most infamous rake, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.

After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught but never permitting his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing. Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca's surname was to remain Bridgerton for only a mere thirty-six hours longer -- the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.

But that was then . . . Now Michael is the earl and Francesca is free, but still she thinks of him as nothing other than her dear friend and confidant. Michael dares not speak to her of his love . . . until one dangerous night, when she steps innocently into his arms, and passion proves stronger than even the most wicked of secrets . . .

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