Monday, September 18, 2006

Imperfection, Thy Name is Hero

For the longest time, if asked who my favorite romance hero is, I've always responded the same way: Justin Alistair, the Duke of Avon. The devilishly imperfect, cold-hearted, arrogant, pleasure-seeking, revenge-obsessed hero of Georgette Heyer's, These Old Shades. I even quote the book in my RWA Online signature, because it's one of the best romance lines I've ever read.

The line comes in the final scene where Justin is trying to convince Leonie (the heroine, who also happens to be his ward) that he isn't the right man for her by cataloguing all his weaknesses. His reputation is damanged, he's never been faithful to one woman, he's selfish, weak, spoiled, he's too old for her, etc... He then finishes this little speech by telling her she's worthy of a better husband than he.

"I would give you a boy who might come to you with a clean heart, not one who was bred up in vice from his cradle."

"Ah, Monseigneur, you need not have told me this! I know-I have always known, and still I love you. I do not want a boy. I want only-Monseigneur."

"Leonie, you will do well to consider. You are not the first woman in my life."

She smiled through her tears. "Monseigneur, I would so much rather be the last woman than the first."

Sigh... at this point in the book, I'm crying. No matter how many times I've read it. Because despite all of Justin's calculating schemes to use Leonie as revenge against his worst enemy, in the end, he risks everything, gives up everything for love. And in doing so, wins me over every time.

Which brings me to The Taming of the Duke. I've just found a hero who can light a candle to Justin Alistair. And coincidentally enough, he's also a duke (maybe I have a thing for dukes?) I don't know how Eloisa James pulled it off (well, I do know, because she's ridiculously talented), but she did. She made me fall head over heels in love with an alcoholic duke with a protruding gut. Doesn't sound too romantic, does it? But Rafe Jourdain, Duke of Holbrook now has a place alongside my beloved Justin as Favorite Hero.

The Taming of the Duke is the 3rd in the sisters series and we meet Rafe right away in book one, Much Ado about You. Now, I liked Rafe instantly from the beginning. He's a big teddy bear of a guy who dutifully embraces his guardianship to 4 young women he's never set eyes on. But he's also an alcoholic. And Eloisa doesn't pull any punches here. He's let himself go, his estate go, and while he still manages to keep it all somewhat together, he's not the sort of confident Regency buck we're used to having as heros in our historicals. Everytime Rafe takes a drink, we cringe. We never know exactly what's going to come out of his mouth.

Other than the fact that both Justin and Rafe are dukes, slightly older (Justin is 40, Rafe is in his late 30's) and both men fall in love with their younger wards, I wondered how two men, who seem so different on first glance, could both be so appealing to me. Rafe is slovenly and unkempt. Justin is so meticulous in his appearance, that he almost comes off as foppish (almost!). Rafe could care less what society thinks of him, Justin is all about image. Rafe's self esteem is rock bottom, while Justin thinks the stars revolve around him.

But on deeper examination, and on all the levels that count, I find both men very similar. And more importantly, they embark on a character arc, that in the end, reveals the true man deep inside. And it's that lovely character arc, done so subtly, and so well, that makes me fall in love.

Both my heros are uncomfortable in their role as duke-Rafe, obviously more so, while Justin's discomfort with his title is more subtle, but it's there. And both men eventually grow into their noble roles, taking on the responsibilities of the title they were born into.

Rafe uses alcohol as a crutch, while Justin uses his need for revenge. In the end, both give up their crutch. Partly for the heroine, and partly because they have to. The crutch just doesn't work anymore.

And lastly, and most importantly, both men go the ultimate distance for love. Justin sacrifices his need for revenge, letting Leonie's needs come first. He tells her he isn't worthy of her, that she deserves someone better than him. But of course, in Leonie's mind, there is no one better (smart girl!) Rafe must battle the bottle and his low self-esteem in order win Imogen's heart. He thinks so little of himself that he woos her in the guise of another man. But ultimately, to win her, he must do the thing he fears the most--reveal himself completely, with all his faults and all his vices.

Both men have to grow into the man that the heroine sees deep inside, or as screenwriting guru Michael Hauge puts it, into their essence (If you didn't go to his workshop at Nationals in Atlanta, make sure to listen to the tape. He was fabulous!)

And that's what I think is ultimately the most satisfying part for me in a romance. Seeing that imperfect man grow into the man the heroine needs him to be. The man the heroine "sees" from the beginning and loves and knows is there. It's that journey of self-discovery that makes me sigh, cry, laugh, etc... because without it, the romance just isn't complete.


Kristen Painter said...

Wow - great post. And I couldn't agree more. I love watching the characters change and grow into people we love despite their flaws.

Susan Elizabeth Phillip's hero, Colin Byrne, from Isn't She Sweet? is another perfect example of this. He comes off a touch effeminate at first, he's so full of himself and borderline prissy, overly concerned with clothes and his immaculate home. But in the end, you feel his pain, understand him...and love him.

Ellen said...

Wow! I have this book and haven't cracked it open yet. I didn't realize that it was about HIM. I'd hoped he would get his own story, because I've liked him from the start. Cool. :)

I'm currently reading Shanna (Woodiwiss) and being introduced to Raurk Beauchamp (I doubt I spelled that correctly). He's quite fine as well.

MariaGeraci said...

Hi, Kristen! I couldn't agree more about Colin. Ain't She Sweet was the first SEP book I read, and I was instantly hooked.

MariaGeraci said...


Ruark is Mel's fav hero!

And if you've enjoyed the sisters series, you'll l-o-v-e The Taming of the Duke. It's my favorite of the 3 so far, and I'm counting the days until Pleasure for Pleasure is out:)

Kate Pearce said...

I still prefer Justin because I thought that Ralph was a little bit underplayed. I don't think that any man who has been drinking that much for so long would get over it quite so fast-and I wasn't sure how Imogen didn't know who was who for so long. But Eloisa James is still a goddess writer. I love her unconventional heroes.

MariaGeraci said...

I agree Kate, I love her heros!


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