Sunday, November 6, 2011

Secrets of a Proper Countess, by Lecia Cornwall - Review

So right off, the opening of this book reminded me of this:
The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

"Call me whatever you wish, my lady-- Lancelot, or Tristan, or Romeo. anything will do." His eyes burned into hers from behind his mask. "I am at your service, and I will be whatever and whomever you wish me to be tonight."

Isobel stared at him, spellbound. The room wavered and spun, and all she could see was him, all she could feel was the heat from his eyes, his body. She was melting with desire. Surely she was dreaming. She would wake up in her widow's weeds at Maitland House and realize she'd imagined the whole encounter.

(I'm also tempted to run a quote from a Billy Joel lyric here -- you know the one-- but I decided that would be over the top).

One of the recurring threads in the romance genre is the anonymous encounter, and in historicals, the masquerade is quite popular.  I think I have at least three books within reach right now that employ it.  The adrenaline, the headlong topple into hormonal bliss without all the messy emotional and pragmatic entanglements that inevitably surround an affair--very tempting indeed. The stuff of fantasies, and in some ways, it's a metaphor for why we read romance at all:

The feeling of falling in love is something we want to experience again, and I think readers can do that safely in a book... without giving up the love we have.  -- Julia London, as interviewed by Sarah Wendell
However, messy entanglements make for interesting reading, and like Erica Jong's character, Isobel Maitland doesn't get her zipless fuck either.  She knows that rake under the mask, and her infatuation turns into full-on passion; and while "Lancelot" doesn't know her name, he can't forget her.

Plot and Context
The suspense/mystery plot that draws them together in an ancillary way is deftly woven into each encounter.  I can't say it's the most original mystery ever to bring a widowed countess and a playboy marquess together, and when I first read the blurb and some of the introductory background I was a bit skeptical:
Lady Isobel Maitland cannot afford to be caught doing anything even remotely scandalous, or she risks losing everything she holds dear...

There were strict rules governing her behavior, carefully noted in her husband's will, and enforced by her mother-in-law.

But as I read on, Cornwall constructed a believable and slightly horrifying context. I think it's easy to forget, as a modern reader, how restrictive life could be for women in those times. There are plenty of stories that play fast and loose with these strictures, that set up their protagonists as triumphing over a value set that is not the same as the readers'. This is a story that doesn't let you forget how simple a matter it was in those days to place a woman completely at the mercy of others, who control her financially and through the fate of her son. In her mother-in-law's household, Isobel is surrounded by enemies and spies, and the least wrong step will see her married undesireably or exiled to a remote estate without her son, or possibly worse yet. She is not even permitted to manage her son's education or free time-- this all falls under the jurisdiction of her brother-in-law.

Chemistry and Characters
Isobel is no Mary Sue though, and I loved the way she went after what she wanted. The heat between the protagonists is very hot:
Yasmina. That's all he had, a made-up name. He shook his head, still dumbfounded and searched the dark pavilion for his coat and his cloak. He wasn't usually so easily distracted when he had work to do, but she had been exceptionally diverting.

He found his garments easily, but the telltale buttons took longer. A gardener or guest who found one button would hardly remark upon it.  A scattering of six buttons in such a secluded place screamed scandal.  Phineas Archer was an expert at avoiding scandal.

Unless, of course, he wished to be caught.

He found the buttons and pushed them into his pocket. He pulled his cloak over his gaping breeches and turned to go, and almost tripped over something. It skittered away to hit the wall with a soft chime. He picked it up and carried it into the light. It was the lady's shoe, delicate and encrusted with pearls and embroidery, with a curled-up toe that was hung with a little bell.

Now, see, that's not even the love scene, that's the aftermath. Isn't it wonderful? Some might find the Cinderella touch a little bit of an eyeroll, but I have to say that I loved it.

So the villains in Secrets are a bit over the top, the usual corpulent, scruple-less, crass, grasping, opposite-of-hero types, but overall Cornwall puts together a nice fabric of secondary characters with just the right amount of complexity to keep the plot interesting on a number of levels.

Bottom Line
I really enjoyed this debut; it has all the right ingredients for a satisfying regency: likeable, lively characters with emotional chemistry, heat, and just the right touch of humor; adept ebb and flow of plot and sexual tension; and an effortless command of voice and language and period that's easy to overlook when it's done right. If you've missed this title, I recommend you check it out, and I'm looking forward to The Price of Pleasure, due out in January.

Around the Blogosphere
At Dear Author - not actually a review, but a nice behind-the-scenes tidbit.
The Romance Dish Also not a review, but an entertaining day-in-the-life essay
Romance Addict
Kay's Blog
Love Romances and More
Tracy at Book Binge
Romance Reviews by Alice

(I must say, either Ms. Cornwall's publicist is exceptional or the word of mouth on this title is really a snowball -- there are pages of reviews for this on Google! so here are just a handful)

1 comment:

Nikola said...

I think this sounds like an exceptional book, *particularly* for a debut! Any quirks or problems are sure to be ironed out soon enough. I'll be on the lookout for "Secrets" for sure!


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