Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Lessons in French," by Laura Kinsale

Note: Please forgive the bizarre formatting - I wrote this review some time ago and saved it to Word before copy-pasting it to Blogger today, so the formatting may be a little weird.

The Chick: Lady Callista Taillefaire. After being abandoned at the altar by three different men, she decides to take the hint and settle for being a wallflower. Unfortunately, it's at that moment that her childhood sweetheart, Trevelyan decides to reappear.

The Rub: He's still up for fun and adventure - but he's definitely hiding something.
Dream Casting:Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude: Trevelyan D’Augustin, Duc of Monceaux. 10 years ago, Trevelyan was banished from Callie’s side and vowed to make something of himself. He now returns successful and wealthy, the conquering hero – to discover the love of his life still hasn’t shacked up yet.
The Rub: And he can’t do the honour himself – because his glittering, golden success is really all a sham. Perhaps, however, he can interest her in one last hurrah before he leaves.
Dream Casting: Matthew Bomer.

The Plot:
Callie: What are you doing?
Trev: I’m returning to take care of my mother.
Callie: What are you doing?
Trev: I’m stealing your precious bull back for you!
Callie: What are you doing?
Trev: I’m pretending to be a Belgian nobleman to spare your reputation!
Callie: What are you doing NOW?
Trev: I’m running away because I’m not worthy of you and thanks to some shady things in my past that are too shady to actually tell you about. Way too shady.
Callie: You know that I literally work with bullshit for a living, right?
Trev: Well, crap. Wait, what are you doing?
Callie: Getting you a pardon! Let’s get married!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Unconventional Redheaded Heroine with Self-Esteem Issues
1 Fraudulent Frenchman with a Secret Past
1 Mischievous Bull with a Taste for Bath Buns
1 Romantically Lacklustre Re-Rival
1 “Just Friends” Agreement Doomed to Failure
1 Really Dumb Blonde
Several Big Misunderstandings
1 Secret Blackmailer
1 Big Fat Ho Cousin
2 Fake Belgians

The Word: Laura Kinsale indicates in her author’s note at the end of her latest novel, Lessons in French, that this is her attempt to write a “light” novel, as opposed to her regular “dark” style. From my experience reading For My Lady’s Heart and Prince of Midnight, I can somewhat understand what she means by light and dark, and how this novel is a bit of a departure from her normal milieu.

Lady Callista Taillefaire is sitting out yet another country dance when a familiar personage from her youth reappears and asks for a waltz. Trevelyan D’Augustin, the Duc of Monceaux, left England to make his fortune after he and Callista were driven apart by her outraged Earl father ten years ago. While of impeccable French pedigree, Trevelyan’s family lost everything during the French Revolution and Callista’s father saw him as nothing better than a foreign fortune-hunter. 
Now he’s back, apparently having recovered his family’s ancestral holdings, but is appalled at the state his mother’s been reduced to – her house is filthy, her servants have deserted her, and her health is in rapid decline. Desperate, he asks his dear Callie to help him set things to rights, since money is no longer an object. Their renewed proximity brings back all of the heady emotions of their youth – but times have changed, and neither feels they can reveal their feelings.

Thrice engaged, and thrice jilted within the last ten years, Callie lives under the assumption that she’s completely unmarriageable – despite her fortune, she’s too dull, too plain, too antisocial, and too obsessed with her cattle farming to be a good wife to anyone. Especially to a French duke as wealthy, charming and sophisticated as Trevelyan has become. Trevelyan, meanwhile, cannot risk an attachment to the woman he still adores – while his newfound wealth is real, the stories he tells Callista and his mother about where it comes from are not.

It sounds so – familiar doesn’t it? By choosing to write a “light” romance rather than a “dark” one, Laura Kinsale sets herself a much riskier literary challenge. Light romances, as opposed to dark or epic romances, must work within a much more limited scope. Without broad obstacles like pirates, spies, or continental travel, light historical romances tend to focus instead on the politics of the drawing-room or small country village – a tinier stage where the smallest misstep could lead into tedium or cliché. Because of the narrower field, many well-used character types tend to flourish. Look at a Julia Quinn or Mary Balogh novel – how many cynical rogues are there? Or virginal bluestockings?

Light romances work by wringing emotional truth and sentimental originality from familiar surroundings and tropes – a trying task to walk between the expected and unexpected, creating realistic and difficult emotional obstacles without going overboard and making your characters exaggerated and unrealistic. Go too far one way and you’ll end up with a completely predictable, boring piece of drivel with tired jokes and overused social observations. Lean too far in the other direction and you get cartoonish situations where the scandalous rake refuses to marry because he blinded his saintly twin brother with a shuttlecock when he was seven and feels unworthy of love (and badminton). 
I mean, objectively, look at the protagonists of Lessons in French – Callie is just another apple from the ever-abundant tree of Self-Hating Gingers, who are numerous enough in Romance Land to have their own political party. And Trev, who believes he’s too dark and scandalous and unworthy of the heroine? What a novel idea! Keeping reading, however.
I don’t know if it actually took five years to complete Lessons in French, but however long it took, it was worth it, for Laura Kinsale accomplishes a near-perfect romance, her beautiful writing lending depth and originality to familiar characters. Trev and Callie have a sizzling, fun dynamic that ten years haven’t lessened. In what seems to be Kinsale’s favourite style, we have a sentimental hero tied to a practical heroine. Trev was always the adventurer, the charmer, the prankster – the kind of bolder, braver friend who could sweep the straight-laced Callie off to join him in his hilarious shenanigans, convincing her that she, too, could be audacious and daring. 
This continues, even now that both are older and (one hopes) wiser. After Callie’s cousin thoughtlessly gambles away her prize bull, Hubert, only for Hubert to escape and (mysteriously) wind up in Trev’s kitchen, dyed black (don’t ask), Trev devises a plan to return Hubert to its new owner without casting suspicion on Callie that involves subterfuge, fake Belgian identities, and a popular cattle fair. How, exactly? You’ll have to read for yourself.

However, Trev isn’t just a happy-go-lucky rogue who swings through life with no strings attached – I loved how Kinsale portrayed his impulsive, emotional nature as being a doubled edged sword. Trev is just as likely to Fuck Things Up (and does so repeatedly) as he is to discover a last-minute solution to a problem. Meanwhile, Callie, as the practical one, is always saying, “No! We mustn’t! Are you mad?” who nevertheless thinks quickly on her feet and can adapt to any situation Trev throws at her with wit and ingenuity. The best thing about this novel is Trev and Callie’s chemistry – there’s none of this “I-hate-you-I-love-you” nonsense. Even after a decade apart they can’t help being friends and they gracefully revert to sharp, knowing banter like returning to a familiar dance whose steps they’ll never quite forget. 
Along with all of this comes the marvellous historical detail – from the gossip papers and village politics to the fashions, and especially the settings we don’t normally read about in Regency romances, like the cattle fair Trev and Callie attend. I enjoyed the subtle flavours Kinsale added to Trev’s character thanks to his French nationality and his family’s status as poor aristocrats in exile. Trev (born during his family’s escape from the guillotine) was raised in England but spent his childhood being constantly impressed with the importance of regaining his French lands and birthright – and his inability to do so shapes him in powerful, even devastating ways.

As I said before, however, this was a near perfect romance. There were a few things that bothered me – and I while I still adore this book, these flaws kept it from becoming the complete emotional bulldozer that For My Lady’s Heart and The Prince of Midnight were. One of my main issues with this romance was Callie – there were many things I loved about her, but I felt her “Woe Is Me I’m So Completely Undesireable” kick pushed too far. It’s not that she doesn’t have a reason for it, having been jilted three times (more on that in a sec), and it’s not like I was expecting a stars-and-sparklers “I Feel Pretty” moment, but I would have liked a little more development of her self-image in reaction to the very obvious indications Trev gives her regarding how attractive he finds her. 
Her low sense of self-worth also leads to some frankly puzzling life choices on her part – such as her decision to accept the marriage proposal of Major Sturgeon, the first man to jilt her who unexpectedly turns up again to re-pledge his troth. She knows for a fact that a) he’s marrying her for her money, b) he tried to hook up with another woman during their engagement and c) that he considers her uninteresting and plain (and all this without even mentioning the fact that he abandoned her at the altar the first time), but, oh, it would be so much more humiliating to be Trev’s pitied and unloved wife than Major Sturgeon’s pitied and unloved wife. I never got this – it just seemed too pathetic of her, especially considering Callie’s easily wealthy and connected enough to live independently without marrying anyone. 
My last nitpick with the novel comes with a revelation at the end regarding the reason and motivation behind Cassie's three jiltings. I won't spoil it, but when it's uncovered Cassie just laughs it off, which I thought was uncharacteristic considering how much pain and self-consciousness she endured after being left at the altar three times.

These slight problems aside, Laura Kinsale demonstrates her trademark wit, depth, detail and romanticism can serve a light-hearted historical romance just as well as they can with a darker one. Laura Kinsale convinced me a knight can learn oral sex from devout Catholic priests, cold water in the ear feels remarkably like acid, and that bulls love bath buns stuffed with white currants. I’m pretty sure Laura Kinsale can write just about anything.


  1. Loved this book in so many ways. Again, I bow down to Laura for writing a spectacular romance and proves that quality over quantity is worth it, even if we wait for 5 years.

  2. I hated that Callie even considered accepting the fishy suitor, but I bought into the notions that in her viewpoint, 1) marrying Trev was a not option and 2) marrying someone, anyone, would be better than living at the whim of her aunt or sister's husband.

    You make a good point though, that it seems perfectly reasonable that she could set up a country household with a companion. Hmmm.

  3. Katiebabs --> Exactly. She's like the James Cameron of romance - it takes her a while, but I'd rather have a fab. book every 5 years than a so-so book every six months.

    Nicola O - That's the impression I got. She's an heiress - not only thanks to her dad, but thanks to breach of contract lawsuits from her suitors. She's got pots of money, so why marry?

    I mean, I might have understood it if Sturgeon had just been a bland, boring suitor she didn't love but could tolerate - enough for companionship and babies, etc. But Sturgeon a) jilted her, b) cheated on her (or tried to), c) only wants her money and d) thinks she's dead boring. Which tips him out of neutral and into negative - again, HOW would marrying him be better than living alone?

    Other than that, though, all-round enjoyable.

  4. Vorkosigrrl12:43 PM

    There's still a few Kinsales out there I need to read. Is this a new one?

    And, at the risk of being tedious on the subject, this quote makes me bring up Georgette Heyer yet again: "Because of the narrower field, many well-used character types tend to flourish. Look at a Julia Quinn or Mary Balogh novel – how many cynical rogues are there? Or virginal bluestockings?"

    Precisely one of the many reasons I admire Georgette so much. Like Jane Austen, she writes with a satirical point of view. She is closely observant of people and creates, not stereotypes, but characters who really come across as individuals, well-shaded, flawed, as contemporary-feeling as Austen's characters were. (Don't judge all her characters by the Duke of Avon.)

    I just finished re-reading Friday's Child and loved it even more than the last time I read it. No one could ever confuse Lord Sheringham with any other character in literature. He feels alive to me, as does the heroine (Hero, actually)and all the secondary characters.

    She is a comic genius. A genius, I tell you! All right, I'll shut up now.

  5. Great review! I love your review style, the Romance convention checklist is very funny :)