To Sir Phillip, With Love, by Julia Quinn

Title: To Sir Phillip, With LoveTo Sir Phillip With Love (Bridgerton #5)
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Regency romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 hesitant stars

I’ve never liked this book as much as the other Bridgerton novels, but for the longest time, I wasn’t sure why.  But I think on this re-read I’ve nailed it, and the trouble is that I really just don’t care for the hero. I find Phillip selfish and cowardly. These are not admirable traits, and although he sort of reforms during the course of the book, I’ve never been able to get fully on-board with him in the way that I can end up getting on with the rest of JQ’s heroes.

We learn in the prologue that Phillip’s first wife suffered chronic depression and attempted to kill herself. Phillip rescued her from drowning, but she then died of pneumonia, leaving him with twin toddlers. That whole scenario is horrible (and, it bears noting, handled quite well by JQ), and of course, any man would be touched by it. But when he flat-out tells Eloise that, because his first marriage was so awful, she isn’t allowed to complain about theirs? Ever? No. That just doesn’t fly. His experience doesn’t get to define hers, and just because it’s not as bad as what he’s had before doesn’t mean it’s perfect, doesn’t mean there aren’t things that need to be worked on.

This is one of those moments where, as warned in my bio, you’re going to get some of my personal history thrown into the mix. I’ll freely admit that my own experiences are colouring my enjoyment of this book on this re-read, and another reader, coming at it from a different place, might not have these troubles. But, I do. I really, really do.

Because here’s the thing: I’ve had a man use “what came before,” with another woman, as an excuse for poor behaviour in the present, with me. As an excuse to avoid honest communication. As an excuse to guilt me if I ever did express discontentment. And I, poor fool, let him get away with it for far too long. It was disastrous, because it meant that if I was at all discontent with any aspect of our relationship, it was automatically my fault, for pushing too hard, or for asking too much, or for not appreciating how his past hurts meant that my expectations were unreasonable. It didn’t work in the opposite direction, of course; his past hurts also meant that I had to be emotionally available, compassionate, and supportive whenever he needed me, without the expectation of receiving the same in kind. My choices were to accept everything, however painful or exhausting or unfair, with contentment, or to shoulder the sole responsibility for discord. That kind of dynamic sets one partner up for failure. That, to me, is not love, and it won’t make for a successful relationship. As a result, I find this ploy thoroughly unimpressive in Phillip. I actually had to put the book down and step away from it for a bit, because I just can’t countenance it. It leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, and, honestly, it just makes me angry, which makes it hard to reconcile with him – especially since I’m not convinced he ever does really come around. Eloise accedes, and that’s pretty much the end of it. So, admittedly biased by my own experience, it’s harder for me to believe in Eloise’s happy ending.

I was also pretty unimpressed with his justification for being obsessed with sex and wanting to spend all his time with his wife in bed rather than ever having a real conversation with her or spending time with her in daylight hours – he claims this is perfectly valid because it had been 8 years since he’d had sex. Do I pity him for that? Sure. But on this re-read it struck me, as it somehow hasn’t before, that he’s saying this to Eloise, who was, at the time of their marriage, a 28-year-old virgin. So, no, I don’t think he gets to complain about being undersexed, really. He doesn’t get to use the double-standard in his favour. It’s another echo of his cowardice and selfishness, ignoring someone else’s needs in favour of his own preferences.

This is not to say the book is without merit. Eloise is generally charming enough to make up for a lot of flaws in the book. I love her chattering and her compulsion to fill silences (a trait which I share with her). The best scene in the book, to my mind, is when all four Bridgerton brothers crash into the house and beat the stuffing out of Phillip in order to defend Eloise’s honour (even though she doesn’t want them to). It’s fabulous and hilarious. You get to see Gregory for the first time as an adult, though it’s entertaining to see Eloise call him an infant even still. All four brothers demonstrate their distinct personalities, but it’s Anthony, with all his responsibilities and concerns as head of the Bridgerton family, and Colin, amiable as ever even though feeling considerable frustration at leaving his new wife to deal with the problem, who put in the best show. I also appreciate JQ’s willingness to delve into some not-often-explored territory in romance novels. Suicide, for one thing. Stepchildren, for another. Masturbation, for a third. JQ proves time and again that she’s willing to go to the places other romance authors often shy from, and I applaud her for that. (Lisa Kleypas is another who does this really well, and someday I’ll get some reviews of her books up on this blog).

I’m really trying not to let my personal viewpoint color my rating too much, which is why it’s getting 3 stars and not fewer. There’s certainly no want of technical merit. JQ is always an excellent writer — indeed, if she wasn’t, I wouldn’t have such an emotional response to her words — and there is much to enjoy about this book. I just can’t recommend it as highly as the other Bridgerton novels, because it was too difficult for me to enjoy it or to have faith in the happiness of the ending.

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