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Gowan is a wealthy Scottish duke and Edie is the well-dowered daughter of an Earl. Their union ought to just be about preserving dynastic lines and increasing wealth -- but our hero and heroine have discovered a compatibility rarely found in such arranged matches. Theirs is, in fact, a love match and Eloisa James writes their giddiness, their attraction to each other so well. Defying Edie's father's wish for a longer engagement, Gowan and Edie marry as quickly as propriety would allow -- and where most stories would end with their happy resolutions, Gowan and Edie's problems only just begin: the two discover that, despite being so well-matched in mind and spirit, it seems they are not so well-matched in one very important area: in body.
Edie could not believe the pain and discomfort that comes with the sexual act -- and her discomfort continues even after their first time together. Where was the gloriousness that her stepmother talked about? Where was the heavenly experience that poets and authors wrote about? As far as Edie was concerned, everything she'd heard about sex was just fiction -- because the reality that she was experiencing is vastly different.
Edie is a cello virtuoso and pursues perfection with each piece that she learns, devoting time and energy to it. Gowan has been a duke since he was 8 years old and has been finding solutions to problems both small and big. Is it her? Is it him? How does one initiate a conversation of such an intimate nature? And how does one go about solving a problem of such an intimate nature?
With two fiercely independent, and incredibly efficient people, their one problem ought to be resolved expediently. But, where to begin? Gone is the dream-like haze of their first meeting, and the rush of their first kiss, and the thrill of their shared secrets -- when the honeymoon ends, reality seeps its way back in and Gowan returns to managing his five estates and Edie loses herself once more to her music.
I am convinced that Eloisa James has accomplished a most wondrous thing in writing Once Upon a Tower. In depicting how unromantic romantic love can be, she has created fiction with metafiction. Here's why:
Deconstruction: James looks at each element of a romance novel, as though trying to pinpoint that one element that makes a great story: is it the characters? James throws in everything and the kitchen sink when she created Gowan and Edie. He's handsome. She's beautiful. They're both rich and talented. They stand on equal ground at the start of their relationship. He's perfect. She's perfect. And they're perfect together. (Apologies to Wicked: the Musical) They are the stuff of dreams and their story is straight out of a fairy tale -- even better than a fairy tale because there were no obstacles to their being together.
Is it the sex? The conflict arises when they are together -- and it's a problem that I've never encountered in all my years of reading romance novels: sex isn't fun for Edie and Gowan can sense it. Their lives have been so carefully and independently mapped out that it's difficult for them to merge and live a shared life. They have companionship but not intimacy. They have love but not romance.
Eloisa James examines the idea of romance and relationships by juxtaposing the marriage of Edie and Gowan and the marriage of Layla and Edie's father. In doing so, James challenges the assertion that romance novels are stereotypical and formulaic -- each couple's story is different and each couple's journey to love is different. Edie and Gowan are wonderful in all things, except the marital bed. And Layla and Edie's father are only ever compatible in bed. There's actually very little "action" that happens in the novel: Edie and Gowan's is very detached and Layla's is behind closed doors.
When things fall apart, Edie retreats into her tower and Gowan runs to the Highlands. The story should be over at this point because there's nothing left. There is no couple to talk about but two separate individuals -- but the story keeps going because there is the one thing left between Edie and Gowan: love.
Throughout their difficulty, they have never denied their love for each other. And, for as long as there is love, there is the story.
Construction: Edie and Gowan try to pick up where they left off and Edie tries so much to lose herself in her music and Gowan tries so much to lose himself in his work -- but they are not the same people anymore. Love has changed them and so they must change their lives. Much has been written about Edie and her tower -- and I would like to offer another interpretation of it: yes, it is a metaphor. It is a metaphor for how challenging love is -- and how equally challenging writing a romance novel is -- there is no long, flowing, stronger-than-steel, can-carry-a-grown-man hair -- there is nothing convenient or easy about how our stories end. Our authors have put careful thought into how A gets to B -- in Once Upon a Tower, what we have is a man, who is determined to be with the woman he loves, and refuses to let anything get in his way.
Edie and Gowan's tower is also a metaphor for the very enduring quality of the romance genre -- it has been in publication since the 18th century and continues to grow and flourish up to now.
Towers have also been seen as a metaphor for fantasy, for something far-removed from reality, for escape -- and it is that as well in Eloisa James's Once Upon a Tower -- because, really, is there really anything wrong with escaping from reality from time to time?
This book tickled me intellectually: with Gowan's own reading of Romeo and Juliet (amazing interpretation, btw) but, at the very last moment, it also affected me emotionally -- and as I read the final chapter, I was crying and sniffling -- and my heart was full-to-bursting from happiness.
What happens then, when romance is stripped of all romantic element? What you get, honestly, is one of the greatest, most brilliant love stories ever written. (And I am not exaggerating.)
Once Upon a Tower is Book 5 in Eloisa James's Fairy Tales series (and has now usurped When Beauty Tamed the Beast and The Ugly Duchess as my new favorite in this series.) To find out more about Eloisa James and her books, click below.