Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Christmas Countess," by Adrienne Basso

Alternate Title: Mother Lover

The Chick: Rebecca Tremaine (no, not that Rebecca Tremaine). Six years ago, she thought the illegitimate child she'd given birth to had been stillborn. She's shocked to discover her baby was given away, instead - to a wealthy earl and his wife.
The Rub: As far as Society is concerned, the Earl is the girl's legal parent, so if Rebecca wants to see her child, it has to be on his terms.
Dream Casting: Samantha Morton.

The Dude: Cameron Sinclair, the Earl of Hampton. After his beloved wife died, his daughter Lily was the only thing that kept him sane, and he'll be damned if he lets anyone else take her away.
The Rub: He frankly doesn't know what to expect when meeting Lily's biological mother - but a strong and insistent attraction isn't one of them.
Dream Casting: James Purefoy.

The Plot:
*to the tune of Winter Wonderland*

Rebecca: Older bro, are you listenin'?
My baby girl, I've been missin'.
Turns out she not dead!
She's a lady, instead,
Brought up by a handsome, wealthy earl.

Cameron: No one knows, I'm not my kid's dad,
She kept me sane, when things got real bad.
I've raised her up well,
So you can all go to hell,
'Cause I am a handsome, wealthy earl.

Charlotte, Cameron's Sister: I am full of angst and body issues,
Because I'm sheltered and I have a limp.
See, my romance only gets a subplot!
Lovin' sure ain't easy for a gimp.

Rebecca: Naughty thoughts, I've been getting,
About Cameron, and I've been betting,
Under some mistletoe,
I'll be his ho-ho-ho,
And he'll be my handsome, wealthy earl.

Cameron: My sexy hips, they've been thrustin',
And my pants, are tight to bustin',
Sure the plot is contrived,
Look! My yule log's arrived!
I am such a handsome, wealthy earl.

Rebecca: ...

Cameron: See, the Yule Log is a euphemism...

Rebecca: I get it.

Cameron: my pants...

Rebecca: Yup. Got it. I'll marry you.

Cameron: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Widowed Single Dad

1 Inconveniently Dead Fiance

1 Precocious Child

1 Gimp Sister

1 Hot Brother

1 Secondary Romance (Cameron's Gimp Sister with Rebecca's Hot Brother)

1 Christmas Tree

1 Near-Drowning

The Word: For all the faults that this novel had, I can't fault it for an unoriginal plot: Six years ago, Rebecca Tremaine gave herself to her beloved fiance, Phillip. Not long after she discovered she was pregnant, Phillip was killed in a freak accident before they could wed. When she finally delivered her illegitimate baby, her parents told her it was stillborn.

The novel opens as Rebecca, going through her deceased father's paperwork, discovers her daughter actually survived, and that her parents had given her away to a wealthy childless couple to hide their daughter's shame. Shocked and betrayed, but desperate to see the daughter she never knew, Rebecca entreats her brother Daniel to meet with the adoptive father - Cameron Sinclair, the Earl of Hampton.

Cameron and his wife Christina adopted the girl, Lily, shortly after miscarrying for the fourth time, and passed her off as their own. Now widowed, Cameron believes he is the only one living who knows Lily isn't his natural child and he's none too pleased when Daniel informs him that Lily's biological mother would like the chance to see her. Fiercely protective of his little girl's state of mind and her reputation in society, he'd prefer to deny the Tremaines any involvement in his child's life. While the Tremaines are mere gentry, Daniel informs the Earl that he's not without influence and, furthermore, possesses a letter proving Lily isn't Cameron's.

Cameron caves, but not before he first tries to scare Rebecca away by being intimidating, and then by imposing strict limits on her visits with Lily. When neither of these attempts work - and he starts to feel more sympathy for Rebecca's plight - he finally decides to invite her and Daniel to a big Christmas house party at his estate. This way, Rebecca will have the opportunity to meet with her daughter in a crowded public setting without raising suspicion.

Okay, so here we have a plot ripe with conflict and intrigue - a truly sensitive, painful situation where no one is really to blame. Rebecca has to struggle with the fact that she has no legal rights to Lily, and that revealing her situation will only do her daughter more harm than good. Cameron adores his daughter and doesn't want to dishonour his late wife's memory by letting anyone else take care of Lily, but once again - more harm than good?

However, despite the original set-up, the novel quickly loses steam. Yes, the idea is good, but the execution is tedious, dully-written, cutesy, and often historically inaccurate. I realize that once the house party starts, the story becomes low-conflict and more character-driven, but the writing style fails to do it justice. I've discovered this distressingly often in lesser romance novels: the Captain Obvious writing style. It's not a case of telling over showing - it's a case of showing and telling. It's when the character's dialogue or actions show the reader perfectly clearly but the author has to tell us as well - just in case! Basically, the reader has to wade through endlessly repetitive and redundant sentences that weigh down the plot like so much literary clutter.

I know romance readers aren't stupid, and you know romance readers aren't stupid - but books like these are what make me understand how the genre's detractors could get that impression. The author treats her readers like five-year-olds who need to be informed that when a character smiles it means she happy and when he scowls it means he's mad, and her writing has all the subtlety of a rampaging elephant.

However, perhaps I'm exaggerating this point simply because I've encountered so many romances with this particular style of writing that it just raises my frustration a notch higher. There can be ambiguity in romance novels! Different interpretations of certain narrative points aren't a bad thing! Objectively, the writing isn't horrible - it's just conventional and obvious and overused and I want something more. As well, the historical setting is pretty lacklustre. The characters think and say a lot of phrases that seemed anachronistic - correct me if I'm wrong, but would "Geeze, what now?" have been said in 1845 England? Or "She looked sexy"? Or "She drove him nuts"?

It's not only the writing - other writers (such as Lisa Kleypas) can make up for lacklustre technique with emotional punch, narrative energy, and interesting, well-developed characters. Most of the characters in The Christmas Countess are vaguely formed, and usually dependent on a very limited set of motivations and characteristics. for instance, Charlotte is focused entirely on her gimp leg. It's understandable that it would be her focus, certainly, but we don't get an indication of who she is as a character beyond her deformity. The whole point of her subplot is that her disability doesn't define her, but the author fails to give us any definition beyond that point - besides how shy and retiring and giggly she is. We only learn her interests and her passions at the very end, when she tells her love interest point-blank. In one sentence.

Our heroine Rebecca is similarly ill-drawn. The minute she finds out about Lily she is a-fire with maternal instinct, longing to hold and mother her. This is a huge theme throughout the book and a legitimate conflict in her character, that she wants to be a mother to her daughter but she can't. Lily's better off as the daughter of an earl than the bastard of a dead barrister, and Rebecca bemoans the fact that her contact with Lily is destined to be impermanent. However, near the end of the book, when Cameron proposes to her after a night of lovemaking, she refuses. Because her feelings, they are so complicated.

Suddenly, the chance to become the permanent, undisputed mother and guardian to the daughter she's missed for six years now takes a back seat to her own angst. This. MAKES. NO. SENSE! She's a mother whose daughter was taken from her! She has absolutely no legal rights over her child - if Cameron decided to pack Lily off to a Julia Quinn novel she'd have no say. Her desire to be in her child's life has influenced all of her actions up until this point! And yet, when she's offered a chance to permanently be in her child's life she waffles because, oh, will it be a love match? Are you KIDDING ME? That's what's most important to you? Raising your own child with a man who's wealthy, caring and good in bed is nice, but heaven forbid you should settle with a man with whom you're merely content. If that's the case, screw Lily!

So, while I'll give Adrienne Basso credit for coming up with an unconventional plot, her execution of it is average at best. All the holly and mistletoe and cutesy precocious children can't make up for a lack of character consistency, uninspired writing, and a wallpaper historical setting. Give this book a lump of coal.


  1. It sounds like it could have been a beautiful book but bogged down with poor characterization and more of a lite tell than a deep one.

  2. Katiebabs - exactly. That's what I felt when reading it. It had such an interesting initial situation that had no easy answers, but it completely lost steam after a while.

  3. Anonymous8:43 AM

    I loved this book! It gets an A from me. I thought it was one of the best books I've read in a while. Yeah, some of the dialogue and whatnot was historically inaccurate, but I can overlook that.