Book Review: When He Was Wicked by Julia Quinn (Updated)

Bridgertons Series

When He Was Wicked is my favorite Bridgerton novel of the eight in the series. Skeptical on whether or not I would like it after I realized in the first couple of paragraphs that it was a guy falling for his best friend/cousin’s wife—that can get really creepy and awkward if not handled correctly—I finally decided to read the synopsis; which I had not done so prior to reading any of the novels. It was in a series and I was on a roll; I didn’t stop to read the summaries of all the books—does anyone else? One doesn’t watch a newly released television series and skip an episode because you’ve read the summary of it, unless, of course, you’ve already seen it and didn’t like it, right?

I realize I write this while previously dissing on Supernatural for their odious series episodic enders that I did not purposely watch because of all it entailed (and it still pissed me off); and, I haven’t decided yet on whether to read the final Song of Ice and Fire books if and when they are ever published because I so loathed the ending of the television series. Yes, I do that now, most especially to television series finales since I seem to get little joy or satisfaction from them—guilty as charged. Now that I’m getting older, I guard my time and equanimity most preciously, especially nowadays—most especially nowadays.

As I’ve gotten older, I have gradually adapted my ways to bring balance around me becoming familiar with my limitations and boundaries on a day-to-day basis—with television and rarely with books (for the purpose of this review, we’ll only discuss these two). When it comes to books, I read the first book in a series and if I find it the least bit interesting and well-written, I continue reading on even if I ultimately find the entire series and ending unsatisfactory or mediocre e.g. A Song of Ice and Fire, Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc. I may adapt yet again; that is the challenge of getting older and becoming self-aware—you need know your limitations and adapt where you can and are able to leave off some things in life that bring you little joy, if possible, in order to balance out peace of mind. Keep in mind that finding equanimity is also a privilege not afforded to a lot of us as certain obligations (liabilities, limitations, circumstances, obstacles, complications, injustices, concerns) require a mindfulness we cannot fully grasp at the time so ultimately no equanimity is achieved.

If someone had taught me all this when I was younger, it would have saved me loads of pain. If you already knew this when you were younger—congrats on you; I wasn’t as self-aware and definitely did not learn to establish boundaries for myself and had no equanimity whatsoever until I was much older, and still on occasion do not. Adulting is a skill, and difficult, and it takes a lot longer for some of us to learn, grow up, evolve, and become judicious about our own needs, regardless of the outcomes, opinions, and actions of others. That is one of the reasons why I loved this book so much. That and it helped me to understand the vagaries of grief—grieving is not an innate ability and requires a level of management that one is not always capable of administering adequately or responsibly, especially when it is compounded onto other emotions.

And yes, there is a death in this novel. It certainly isn’t a spoiler if you think on it. This is, though, where I’m going to meander and philosophize about death and dystopia and nihilism and all that entangles presently. Feel free to skip past and come back later to read if you need to. I completely understand and empathize given the present day’s sociopolitical conundrums and news and everything existentially happening. This is one of the reasons why I need to write about it. I do hope it can bring you comfort if all these deaths are weighing as heavily on you as they are on me.

Since we are deep in the bowels of some dark times regarding trauma and death—presently, there are over 2.6 million Covid deaths worldwide and 536k deaths in the US—and all that encompasses, it seems like the perfect time to go off on television series and their fetishization of torturing their viewers with trauma and death after death after death, especially of women. Death is a part of life, you say—no shit; however, since The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Gamergate, it feels like showrunners have escalated their torture porn regarding trauma and death to another level entirely—the seventh level, or circle to be exact, as much as I’m loathed to compare anything remotely to Christian fanfiction, but if that raggedy tag fits…

Trauma and death are exhausting, especially now—most especially now. This era feels like a sort of violence against anything and everything encouraging, reassuring, uplifting, and just. For at least the past decade, there was death and dystopia and nihilism, a dearth of hope and a surplus of hopelessness. I confess, I was as sucked into that vortex reign of unending terror as well. It was like a harsh, negative current sweeping you along and under that you could not pull yourself from. I dragged myself free several times when I realized what was happening years ago and still feel like I’m treading water, wading through occasionally when I see the abstract pull of patterns unfolding towards such. It is an unhealthy situation and attitude and trauma you must police and protect yourself from regularly during this era. Or perhaps that is just me? For those of us that carry the burden of a traumatic past, this ordeal feels abnormally so, and I understand. I stand alongside you, holding you up as you do me—you are not alone.

I don’t wanna dismiss the importance of these brands of existential nihilistic novels and shows because they are important and necessary creations—hugely so, and I would never say don’t make that art; that is heretical to me as an artist; they are as essential in art as trauma and death are. I started pondering on the extent of these creations after reading an essay written in 2011 by Neal Stephenson titled Innovation Starvation in which he laments the pessimistic turn of novels—the dark, dystopian, and nihilistic-no hope and most everything existentially negative. This seemed an odd statement coming from Stephenson since he’d written a few of them that I would highly recommend as significant game-changers in science fiction. But I think that was the point. This dark era feels like a death with no shift towards mourning or grieving that has yet to evolve into aspiration or achievement or expectation for something else greater, more positive and reaffirming, and if there was, it was very little if any. It’s like we got so used to this darkness, fell into a pattern or habit, and cannot see any other way forward or pull ourselves from it.

This really hit home during the year that male showrunners started killing off women at unusually high rates. Also, when the television series Revolution—of which I was a huge fan—premiered, a portion of the fanbase was dangerously warped, frighteningly so with a macabre reverence for vengeance and violence and misogyny towards the female leads, like the hate and vitriol that The Walking Dead actresses received. That is when I realized something bad was happening and we were in a spiral of doom. The rise of the anti-hero weaponized into something real and insidiously fascist creeping into the reality of our daily lives and the populace. Well, then came he who shall not be named and HRC lost and that fours years of hell that has us still looking over our shoulder every day—they are not gone, but they’ve become a little less potent, for now. There was a cynical form of unpleasantness and maliciousness—I get cynicism and am completely comfortable with it, but this seemed way more than the typical.

So, here we are. There are lots of people that have and still live in dystopias every single day and are certainly way worse than what some of us experienced. That trauma is ever-present and suffering never really goes away, and we need be collectively mindful of that. It must be a concern we share to bring light to people, communities, and worlds that struggle with none—at least it is for me. I cannot help but feel that this era was acutely painful though and is still a clear and present danger, especially to those most vulnerable. I do see change finally clearing through those dark clouds even while we are still mired deep within it.

I hope I’m not the only one?

This is where I come to the point of my long, lingering diatribe about such: I challenge you to write hope and everything it imbues into your art for the next few years. We have had far too much pessimism, disease, death, trauma, and the pandemic isn’t over yet. Remember that when creating. If you’re an artist like me that really has no control over where your art takes you, I get it; I understand the need to wrap the unseemly in dark, dry humor and horror, highlight and pervert it, and laugh maniacally at it, twisting into something poetically insidious. If that is how you deal, far be it for me to dissuade you—you do you; whatever heals you and makes you whole and stronger after this brutal time; find your peace and equanimity; and, more than likely, I will be right there with ya. Everyone grieves differently and oftentimes at the expense of others, unfortunately—it is the human experience. I’m also making myself aware of and challenging myself towards encouragement, enthusiasm, romance, love, innovation, empowerment, happily ever afters, and hope, and everything that entails—this while my cynical, misanthropic side sulks in disgust and panic and throws a temper tantrum.

Maybe that’s what I’ve been writing all along? And I only needed to vent about it in this long-ass review to get to why I loved this book so much? The very thing of showing how other people react to their grief and all the conflicting emotions and repercussions surrounding those situations and actions? That and knowing there is a happily ever after at the end of this book? But then there isn’t really because it doesn’t end there and life still keeps going regardless—HOPE, though! Grumble, grumble.

Michael ran away when confronted with everything, and I found that so relatable and painfully human that I was hooked from that point forward. Quinn wrote this beautifully. His genuineness from the beginning, professing, with some of the driest, funniest humor, that he was an asshole, confirmed he was aware of his limitations and flaws. Apologetic and remorseful, he fought against allowing certain powerful emotions and impulses to overrun his good sense, which rendered him capable of redemption—and yet he still couldn’t deal. He needed to get some space to grieve and grow—and so he did. I get it. Of course, that means he left poor Francesca with the responsibilities of his abandonment, shouldering the difficulties of his obligations along with her own grief. Like a boss, she rose to the occasion and flourished in that role, and perhaps Michael knew subconsciously that she would, whereas he would not, since he bore the burden of a guilt he couldn’t carry around her or his family. Quinn wrote this part so well I wanted to hug her.

Years later and Michael returns. I love these return tropes where the anticipation of characters first glimpse of seeing each other again after much time goes by keeps you up later and later, reading into the wee hours of dawn—the sexual tension builds and builds on each confrontation afterward and becomes so intense and finally the climax—HA!—delivers such a hot fantastic scene, we need a cigarette when finished—though, not really; cigarettes are nasty; drink water; always drink lots of water. And yeah, that sex scene is damn hot. I doubt even Shonda, Chris, and his crew can do it justice—we’ll see, hopefully. I have HOPE!

I’m looking forward to Francesca’s story because she is the odd one out—the one that keeps to herself in that very large extroverted family, and I do definitely empathize with that. I love the widow discussion between Francesca and Violet and felt that gave Violet some much-needed depth in the book series that she lacked prior; although, they seem to be rectifying that in the television series, which is fantastic.

There is no Lady Whistledown in this novel if I recall correctly (I could be wrong; it’s been a while since I read it)—this is an epistolary novel with letters being written amongst the leads offering a greater glimpse into their relationships, their love for one another, and how close they were—and I did enjoy the glimpse into that part of their lives. Regardless, I’ve always had a certain fondness towards the narratives of three people being in love with one another and it not in any way being awkward or antagonistic or shameful for them, but comfortable and real. Not to say Michael isn’t conflicted—his self-flagellation and range of emotions regarding the situation he finds himself, are a part of his and the novel’s charm. Reading Francesca’s emotions and revelations to what was happening to her evolve was so absorbing, I could not put the book down till she realized it, and still couldn’t put the book down. The overall intensity and spectrum of emotions shape this novel’s foundation giving you a roller-coaster ride of pure pleasure. So, yeah, I definitely recommend it.

One of the things that gave me so much comfort this past year was the anticipation of Bridgerton and I thank them for that and hope we see more of the same, especially of Francesca and Michael’s story.

UPDATE: I started rereading it again while I was writing this review. I had forgotten how incredibly hot and funny this book is. Colin’s part, as short as it may be, is rather prominent and hilarious. This starts me wondering if they’ll begin combining the siblings’ stories in the series for expediency.

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