Once Upon a Tower
By Eloisa James
Release Date: May 28, 2013
Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, Chief of Clan MacAulay, is a man who knows the value of time. He might prefer to be in the Highlands fishing for salmon to being in an English ballroom fishing for a wife, but since he needs information from the Earl of Gilchrist, it seems prudent to combine the two tasks. But Gowan is the one who is hooked at first sight by Gilchrist’s beautiful daughter. He told himself that diligence was the chief criterion for his duchess, but it is not a quality he considers at all in choosing Lady Edith Gilchrist for his bride.
Instead, from the moment he sees her, Gowan thinks of Edie in the language of fairy tales. She is “otherworldly.” She looks as if she were “dreaming of her home under a fairy hill.” Her hair “gleamed like the golden apples of the sun.” Gowan, who professes to value the utilitarian, suddenly discovers that Shakespeare has his uses since the bard gives Gowan the words to express his inexpressible feelings for the glorious Edie: “I never saw true beauty till this night.”
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5).
The reader soon discovers that Edie’s silence and serenity, qualities that greatly appeal to Gowan, as well as her “burning touch” are attributable to her feverishness. Edie is much less ethereal and much more unconventional than Gowan knows. He doesn’t even know that music is the most important thing to her. Edie is a gifted cellist, good enough to have been a performer had she been born male. From the first letter he receives from her, Gowan learns that his first impression of Edie was an incomplete picture. It will take marriage to teach him how incomplete.
Since she was so ill when they met, Edie knows even less about Gowan than he knows about her. She’s not even certain what the man she has promised to marry looks like. Her strongest memory is of his “enchanting Scottish burr.” Combining her own vague recollection of him with what her stepmother tells her, Edie concludes that she is about to become the wife of “a Scotsman the size of a bloody tree with no sense of humor and an impulsive bent.”
The letters Edie and Gowan exchange do reveal something of who they are, but they are still essentially strangers when they marry. They are also quite young: she is nineteen and he is twenty-one. They are also both single-minded in their obsessions, as the young are prone to be, and neither really understands what drives the other. Nor have they learned the necessity of compromise.
Gowan learns that Edie’s practice time with her cello is important to her, but he does not understand that music determines how Edie thinks, how she views the external world. He says to her at one point, “You may be a musician, but that is not the sum of you.” And Edie’s response is to think he is wrong, that music is the sum of her. It isn’t all of who she is, of course, but it does color everything about her. This is particularly true because for all of her life, music has been both her single passion and her sole means of real connection with her only parent.
Gowan is as consumed by his responsibilities as duke and chief of his clan as Edie is by her music. Edie subconsciously understands this, as one intuitive response reveals: “Hundreds of years of self-assurance had been drilled into him with the same rigor as had her musical scales.
Earlier she recognizes that Gowan is “as driven as she. . . Though she wasn’t entirely sure in what direction.” What she can’t know is that for Gowan, as for Edie, the importance of this role is magnified by what his father was.
The potential for problems is there from the beginning, and then the problems with their sex life complicate the situation even more. Edie and Gowan are not merely sexually inexperienced; they are true innocents. Edie barely understands what the word “prick” means. She doesn’t even know how to flirt. She is dependent upon what her stepmother tells her, and some of Layla’s advice is very bad indeed. Gowan was betrothed to his first fiancée when he was very young, and the licentiousness of his parents has made him adopt high standards for his own behavior. He was too honorable to be faithless, believing that lying with another woman when his troth was pledged would dishonor both his fiancée and himself. He found the idea of paying for sex “distasteful.” Gowan knows more about sex than Edie does, but his knowledge is based on certain illustrated volumes in his library. Their ignorance combined with their inability to communicate is disastrous.
The first seventeen chapters show Gowan and Edie meeting and moving toward marriage. The next twenty-five show their marriage moving toward trouble, deeply in trouble, and achieving their HEA. Eloisa James is at her finest when she writes marriage-in trouble stories, and Once Upon a Tower is no exception.
I spent a great deal of time trying to get all the reasons I love this book into coherent paragraphs. I couldn’t do it. My enthusiasm just kept overpowering my rational thought process. So instead of reasoned criticism, I give you a list:
The Top Ten Reasons I Loved Once Upon a Tower
10. Literary Allusions
One of the things I always look forward to in an Eloisa James novel is the literary allusions. I have fun trying to identify those she sneaks in, but even when they come with full identification, I enjoy them. The Romeo and Juliet references were a joy in this one, but an even greater delight was the use of John Donne’s aubade, a poem I love for many reasons.
What fun to have Edie and Gowan attending the wedding of Honoria Smyth-Smith to the Earl of Chatteris! I love the idea that they are all part of one world. I might say it’s “Just like Heaven.”
I loved the letters! I thought they were funny, and I thought they served a significant purpose in allowing Gowan and Edie to learn a little more about one another before their second meeting.
Since Bardolph’s name comes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I and Henry V, I might have included him with the literary allusions, but another of my particular joys in reading Eloisa James is decoding the names she gives tertiary characters. My favorite is Prufrock, Piers’s butler in When Beauty Tamed the Beast, but Bardolph is a close second. He’s a terrific character, much worthier than the character whose name he bears.
First, Layla with her cheroots, her empty flirtations, her unhappy marriage, and her loving heart is a vibrant character , one who is easy to like. But I also thought her name fit perfectly into the novel, evoking both the character from Arabic literature whose love story has some similarities to Romeo and Juliet and Eric Clapton’s song by that title (based on the literary character). I thought a couple of Clapton’s lines fit EJ’s Layla well: “You've been running and hiding much too long. / You know it's just your foolish pride.”
5. The Dress
I can’t say too much about this without moving into spoiler territory, but readers will understand the importance of The Dress, the one that makes you look the way you want to look, the one that affects him exactly the way you want it too. Edie wears such a dress. It is “China rose. . . . Darker than cinnabar, more saturated than claret . . . well, close to claret.” It is amazing, and it leads to a Moment. The only other thing I’m going to say is that nobody can make a kiss on the hand as sexy as Eloisa James does.
4. The Tower
Part of the fun of reading James’s fairy tale romances is considering how she uses elements of the traditional story, sometimes staying true to them in order to suggest the original and sometimes giving one a twist to make it reflect a quite different meaning. Edie is beautiful like Rapunzel. In fact Gowan’s comparison of her hair to the “golden apples of the sun” echoes the description from the Grimm Brothers’ tale (1812) that calls her “the most beautiful child under the sun.” Rapunzel is musical as well. It is her voice that first enchants the king’s son. Edie is a cellist rather than a singer, but her playing enchants Gowan the first time he hears her. Rapunzel and her prince marry, but they must overcome obstacles before they begin their HEA. Edie and Gowan’s story follows the same pattern. The prince wanders blind, weeping over the loss of his wife. Gowan’s blindness is metaphoric, but he too wanders and weeps for the same cause. And in both stories, the wife’s tears are healing.
The twist comes with the tower. Rapunzel is shut into a tower that “had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window.” The tower sounds similar to Edie’s, but Edie chooses to shut herself into her tower rather than being imprisoned there by an enchantress. Readers with a Freudian leaning may see the tower as a phallic symbol. I was more interested in seeing Edie’s making choices and taking action as evidence of her maturing and recognizing her autonomy, qualities that link Edie more closely to Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force’s version of the tale, "Persinette" (1697).
3. The Groveling
Sometimes my affection for a book is shadowed by the hero’s insufficient groveling for what I see as serious offenses. EJ’s Potent Pleasures is one of those books. But Gowan grovels beautifully. Additionally, other characters—several of them-- say to Gowan all the things I wanted to shout at him. Wonderful!
2. The Language
The language of Eloisa James’s novels is an abiding joy. There are the lovely, lyrical lines that sing softly in the reader’s ear. I pick out one sentence in every EJ novel that particularly satisfies my love of the lyrical line. My pick for OUAT: “Her lips held a natural curve, as if she had a kiss or a smile in reserve, one that she had never given away.”
Beyond the lyricism, there is a sense of rightness in every word. James gives the reader the feeling that each word is chosen with precision and purpose. For example, in one scene Layla claims that her husband doesn’t like her. Edie says to her, “I believe you do like each other. You just need to talk more.” The language here is simple; twelve of the thirteen words in the two sentences are monosyllabic. But the rhythm is perfect for the situation, intensifying the directness and genuineness of Edie’s response. Her words are also touched with irony since the reader understands what Edie does not: her words will apply as well to Edie and Gowan.
1. The Totally Satisfying HEA
No matter what else I love about a romance novel, it can never reach my top tier of favorites if the ending fails to leave me believing that the love of the H/H is the kind that can survive all the blows life will deliver. The ending of OUAT leaves me with this feeling with no reservations. The romantic gesture is perfect, the luscious frosting on the very best cake.
I highly recommend this one. Imagine I’m sending up “Read This!” balloons to remind you that it’s available in one week.
Are you a fan of fairy tale romances? What qualities do your top tier favorites have in common?