Monday, January 25, 2010

Lessons In French, by Laura Kinsale -- Review

Everyone's a Critic
I can pinpoint the moment in my reading history when I started reading romances more critically. I started a thread on a forum back in 1999 and traded "favorites" lists with other romance fans. My goal was really the same as this blog-- to find other romance lovers and to chat about the books. What I found was a lot of that, but also some really insightful, literary discussions about the best of the romance genre.

This is the point that I was introduced to Laura Kinsale, along with a few other greats I had missed along the way. Flowers from the Storm consistently rates high on "all time favorite" lists and just has so many layers to it. Eric Selinger, a professor at DePaul University and pioneer in the academic study of romance literature, consistently includes FftS in various curricula, teasing out an allegory to Milton's Paradise Lost while he's at it.

I'm also a big fan of her two related medieval novels, For My Lady's Heart and Shadowheart. Contrary to popular pattern, these are not Britain-centric, but have more the Italian/Venetian flavor of the Borgias and Medicis.

Kinsale Lightens Up
These are some tough acts to follow, but Lessons in French does not disappoint. This book is a bit lighter than most of Kinsale's backlist, lacking the deeply tortured hero that she's so famous for. Don't get me wrong, Trev has his problems and they're not trivial, but we're not talking "I had a stroke and got committed to an asylum" or "I was raised by maniacs from the toddlerhood to be an assassin, no wonder I can't trust anyone," level of problem, you know? It has elements of a romantic comedy, with an absurd little subplot about a prize shorthorn bull. Like any good farce though, the parts that make you laugh are also connected to character truisms that will pull on your heartstrings.

Here's the blurb (from Kinsale's website, this isn't exactly what I have on the back cover of the review copy. Your Blurb May Vary):
She is, after all, Lady Callista Taillefaire, jilted three times in spite of her fortune and her father’s best efforts to find her a husband. Now her greatest desire is to win the silver cup at the agricultural fair with her gigantic prize bull, Hubert. But when Callie’s only old flame returns from his long and mysterious absence in France, her quiet spinster life turns upside down.

Dark-eyed, elegant and a magnet for trouble, Trevelyan d’Augustin has given Callie lessons in more than his language in the past. Her father put a harsh and humiliating end to any dreams of romance with a French √©migr√© scoundrel, however, and Callie never thought to see him again.

Swallowing his pride, Trev has finally come home to care for his failing mother, but his secrets and misdeeds follow him. Callie soon remembers that nothing is ever peaceful with Trev around. The enormous Hubert vanishes into thin air, one of her former jilts comes back to woo her in a most determined manner—and her bull takes the town by storm! In the midst of these misadventures, Callie finds herself falling in love again with the worst possible man for her…

My Favorite Things
The best part of Lessons in French is the chemistry between Callie and Trev, and the pitch-perfect dialogue that brings it all to life. My review copy has dozens of little sticky flags pointing at bits that simply delighted me. I know it's going to be good when I start reaching for the flags on page EIGHT* :
"Come, I know it's you," he said gently. He sat down beside her. "I can see a stray lock peeking out from that prodigious lovely turban."

She drew a deep breath. "No, can you? And I was so hoping to be taken for a Saracen." She tucked at the nape of her neck without looking at him.

"You've mislaid your camel, it would appear."
These are the first words they exchange after a nine-year separation. Isn't that wonderful?

Later, Trev is joking with Callie about his nature. Although there is more weight behind his words than she realizes, I just adore her dry-as-dust response:

[Trev says] "I haven't sold my soul. Only mortgaged it, you understand, at a very reasonable rate of interest."

"I quite comprehend the fine distinction."
The characters of Trevelyn and Callie instantly engaged me. Trev has a big problem in his backstory, one that does, in fact, make it impossible for him to stay in England with Callie -- for once not some misunderstanding blown out of proportion. It is solved honorably by the end, but not too easily.

And in someone else's hands, Callie might have been too Mary-Sue, because she has a deep streak of Just Plain Goodness, shown mostly through her care of Trev's ailing mother. But she is beset by circumstantial problems large and small, and just comes through as so very human. It's impossible not to love her.

Now finally, the plot and pacing of Lessons In French won't let you down. There is an awful lot going on here, but all on a really human and intimate scale. Trev's mother is ill, dying. His French heritage and activities during the Napoleonic wars have made his status in England precarious. Callie has been jilted three times, making her completely notorious through no fault of her own, and all but killing her chances to marry. Since her father passed away, her home has been taken over by the new holder of the title, and she knows that her tenure there is limited. Just when she believes her only future is with her sister Hermione, once Hermey locks up a marriage proposal, along comes not only Trev and his complications, but one of her former fiances with a dubious second chance. Then there's Hubert the bull.

All of these story threads come together in a perfect balance of drama and farce, weighty and trivial, darker and lighter. Whether you're new to Kinsale or a longtime fan, I encourage you to pick up Lessons In French. C'est l'amour!

*on the review copy, the numbers may differ in the final publication)

Acknowledgements: thanks to Danielle Jackson at Sourcebooks for providing a review copy. Lessons In French is available in stores on January 26, 2010.


Danielle said...

I had that revelation about romance books last year with Tessa Dares' 'Goddess of the Hunt'. Before that book I really relegated all romance to the 'trashy reading' pile in my mind. But when you get a taste of *good* romance it does make all the difference, and you become quite discerning.

I will definitely be checking out Laura Kinsale. Apart from 'Flowers from the Storm', what are your other absolute must-read Kinsale books?

Laura Kinsale said...

Nicola, thank you for such a great review--what you said is so precisely what I hope readers will enjoy about this book.

I call it a "feel-good" book, to distinguish it from the "I was raised by maniacs from toddlerhood" variety. LOL, that line really made me grin.

Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Nicola O. said...

Ms. Kinsale, it was absolutely my pleasure!

Danielle, most all of them are good stories. A few people have said they didn't like "Again The Magic" as much as other titles-- it has some supernatural elements, IIRC, that didn't work for everyone.

M. said...

I usually try to stay away from reviews about books I'm going to review so my thoughts aren't influenced, but I couldn't resist a peek at what you thought.

Hooray, I loved it too! My review goes up tomorrow.

Unknown said...

I'm in the middle of reading this book, and I actually find myself putting it down because I don't want to finish it.

NOT because I don't like it. But because I just don't want it to end!!! I can't stand a world in which I don't have an unread Kinsale waiting for me on the horizon.

I read a romance novel earlier this week and spent the entire time picking it apart and trying to pinpoint exactly what my problems were with it. Then, I began this book. After five sentences in I was nodding my head and singing: "this is how you do it!"

These early lines in the book are an example of why I love Kinsale's writing: (on reasons why Callie may have been thrice jilted and everyone having an opinion on the matter)

"Her sister, Hermione, felt that Callie showed a deplorable lack of respect for the fashion in caps. The gossips blamed it upon Napoleon. During the French wars, they blamed everything on Napoleon, and even five years after Waterloo he had not outlived his usefulness in that regard. The goats, being commoners, very properly kept their opinions to themselves."

Utterly effortless, but imbued with whimsy as well as giving the reader much information without TELLING. It's beautiful. So now we know that Hermione is a bit silly and that Callie's plight is horribly embarrassing and talked about by all.

Christine said...

I have not read Laura Kinsale's work yet, but recently picked up Lessons in French on a whim on my last trip to the bookstore first because I simply loved the title, and then because after reading the blurb on the back cover, this story sounded like it was right up my alley. Now I'm so glad that I did. Every review I read about this book is stellar and I can't wait to dive in!


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