This book has probably my favourite opening of any romance novel ever.
In every life there is a turning point. A moment so tremendous, so sharp and clear that one feels as if one’s been hit in the chest, all the breath knocked out, and one knows, absolutely knows that one’s life will never be the same.
Isn’t that gorgeous? And it makes for such an effective opening, because there’s something so seductive about that description. All of us want to experience that moment, we yearn for that earth-shaking realisation — and JQ socks us with it from the beginning. It sets the stage admirably — so much of the book has that half-dizzied, half-stricken feeling to it. It’s simultaneously such high drama but also so real. When He Was Wicked, start to finish, doesn’t flinch away from some of the darker and more difficult aspects of what it means to be in love.
What struck me most about When He Was Wicked on this re-read is how much more of a mature story it is than most romance novels. The heroine isn’t a debutante, not a virgin — she’s a widow. She’s known love, and she’s known loss. The hero is an unabashed rake, but not your usual variety — he’s been suffering for years, stifling his emotions, because he’s in love with his cousin’s wife. It’s a complex situation, with a lot more pre-existing entanglements than most romance novels spin together.
And that’s the crux of our conflict. There are some other points — Francesca’s first husband dies, leaving Michael to inherit an earldom he never expected to have. To escape it (and Francesca), he runs away to India for a few years (and contracts malaria while he’s here). But plot definitely isn’t what drives this book: it’s all the characters and their emotions, as Frannie and Michael struggle with their feelings for each other and the guilt that those feelings create. Because they both loved John (Frannie’s first husband, the former Earl) so much, they have to convince themselves that he would approve of them being together. When He Was Wicked is one of the slower-paced Bridgerton novels, but not in a bad way. The stakes aren’t dire, but the emotions are so strong. This isn’t a light-hearted romp; the currents run deep.
Honestly, in a lot of ways, this book is sort of the “one of these things is not like the other” of the Bridgerton series — which is appropriate, since Francesca admits that, though she loves her family, she doesn’t always feel like she fits in with them. She’s the sly one, the quiet one, and throughout the series, she’s always been more on the periphery. She also spends less time in her book with her family than any of the other Bridgertons do — much of the plot takes place with Frannie and Michael up in Scotland. It’s still a Bridgerton book, though — you couldn’t remove that element and have the same story. The focus on family is still very strong in a way that I associate more with the Bs than with any other romance novel family, and the scene where Violet and Frannie discuss what it’s like to lose a husband is one of the more tender and lovely moments that JQ’s ever written.
This book also has probably some of my favourite sex scenes in Regency romances. They’re so sensual and lush, really heady. You feel a little lust-drugged just reading them. Also, the advantage of your heroine not being a virgin is that you get a lot more, ah, creativity, right from the get-go. She takes charge, she knows what she wants and what she likes — Of course, since Michael is our hero, he does get to introduce her to some new things and please her in new ways. (And I love getting to skip over the absurdity of the hymen myth, since that never fails to bother me). I had forgotten how much I like Michael as a hero, too — You get so much of his viewpoint, spending a lot of time inside his head. The funny thing is I can’t even put a finger on why I like him so much — there’s just something very appealing about him.
Overall, I really enjoy this book. It’s not one of my fave Bridgertons, but I’m still very fond of it. Another hearty recommendation, particularly to anyone who likes her romance novels deeply emotional.