Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Proof By Seduction," by Courtney Milan

The Chick: Jenny Keeble, a.k.a. "Madame Esmerelda." Through smarts and cunning, Jenny spent 12 years making a decent living as a fortune-teller, feathering her nest egg with gullible, wealthy clients.
The Rub: Her livelihood is threatened when Lord Blakely, the aristocratic relative of one of her regular clients, makes it his mission to reveal her as a fraud.
Dream Casting: Michelle Ryan.

The Dude: Gareth Carhart, Marquess of Blakely. Cold, autocratic, and fully aware of his aristocratic duties, he's determined to groom his heir, Ned, into a responsible future marquess - and that means cutting off the boy's dependence on a sham psychic.
The Rub: For all she's a fake, Madame Esmerelda very easily sees past his unfeeling facade to the more private person within - and Gareth doesn't like it.
Dream Casting: Colin Firth.

The Plot:

Ned: Blakely, meet my fortune teller.

Gareth: She's a fake.

Jenny: You're an ass.

Gareth: You're a product of abandonment.

Jenny: You can't play well with others.

Gareth: You're sexy.

Jenny: You're hawt.

Gareth: But you're beneath me.

Jenny: I'm outta here.

Gareth: I'm sorry.

Jenny: You're too late.

Gareth: I bought you an elephant.

Jenny: I ... wait, what?

Gareth: Marry me?

Jenny: Oh, all right, I will.

Gareth: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Interclass Romance

1 Orphaned Heroine

1 Science Nerd Hero

1 Elephant Carving

1 Actual Elephant

1 Inconvenient Compromisation

1 Bout of Depression

2 Meddlesome Relatives

Several Unwanted Gifts

The Word: Right off the bat, I'm going to admit that I didn't read Proof By Seduction without outside expectations and influences. On one hand, I went in with the knowledge of how awesome Milan's debut novella ("This Wicked Gift") was, which raised my expectations. On the other, this book had recurring themes similar to two books I didn't particularly care for - that is, the Hero Dedicated to Truthiness who Falls for a Liar theme from Connie Brockway's So Enchanting and the Emotionless Aristocrat Who Knows His Place (And Yours) schtick that was so irritating in Laura Lee Guhrke's Secret Desires of a Gentleman. I opened this novel with both wonder and misgiving, a toss-up as to which would win out.

Madame Esmerelda, a fortune teller, prepares for an appointment with her regular client Ned Carhart, but she's nonplussed when the young man brings along his cousin, the Marquess of Blakely. Lord Blakely, it seems, is grooming young Ned to be his heir and the first item on his list is to yank Ned's head out of his ass and break his unseemly attachment to a lying fraud like Madame Esmerelda.

It doesn't help Esmerelda's case that she actually is a fraud: her real name is Jenny Keeble. For twelve years she's pretended to converse with the spirits in order to make a living - lacking family or friends, her other options are decidedly less savoury. However, after more than a decade she's running out of justifications for her work and is starting to feel the tug of loneliness.

However, she defends herself against Lord Blakely's attempts to uncover her sham - for Ned's sake. Despite the lies at the foundation of their relationship, Ned's the closest thing to a friend she has. Also, for the last two years, she's helped Ned deal with some very real personal problems - and revealing her deception could undo everything Ned's accomplished as part of his recovery. Jenny's further justified by the fact that Blakely is an overbearing ass who treats Ned like a whining, witless burden instead of as a cousin and heir.

As the scientifically-minded Blakely tries to prove that Jenny's a fraud, she bites back by predicting Blakely's marriage - provided he complete three tasks. Blakely is forced to obey these tasks because if he doesn't, then he can't prove her prediction false - and thus starts off a battle of wits.

Interestingly enough, my experience reading Milan's "This Wicked Gift" made reading the first chapters of Proof By Seduction difficult, while my reactions to So Enchanting and Secret Desires of a Gentleman kept me reading. The narrative pacing in novellas is naturally faster thanks to their shorter length, so I had problems with how slowly Proof By Seduction started out and how conventional it seemed at the beginning. Yes, yes, of course - here we have the stuffy peer who is brought low by the feisty heroine's trickery, let's watch them banter, ha ha, now he's attracted to her against his will, how will he get out of this mess? etc. etc.

However, despite the sloooow start, once it reaches a certain point, the narrative starts speeding up ... and speeding up... until it's barrelling downhill and you're staying up late and getting up early to read the rest of it!

Instead of making the entire novel a farce where Blakely tries to prove Jenny a fake, Blakely and Jenny come to the mutual agreement that Jenny's a sham pretty early on. What Jenny's profession does is establish a contrast between Jenny's white lies and Blakely's complete lack of tact. Blakely has a pretty negative view of life and other people in general. He's inclined to believe the worst of people - including his cousin Ned and his sister Laura - and thinks he's just being scrupulously honest. Meanwhile, Jenny tries to see the good in people and uses it to her advantage as a fortune teller by convincing her clients of their own strengths and talents - in essence, making self-fulfilling prophesies. Who's being the most truthful?

Despite the lack of pacing, Courtney Milan's characters are still warm, bleeding people. Milan even aces the tremendous feat of making the Antagonistic Snob Hero Who is Constantly Insulting the Heroine an unexpectedly adorable character. When I first started reading about Gareth, I'll admit I flashed back to Phillip from Secret Desires of a Gentleman, a ruthlessly blue-blooded gent who just can't believe that his penis salutes the heroine without giving the woman's lack of breeding and connections the consideration it deserves. "Curse my democratic wang!"

However, Milan gives us a hero who holds his nose in the air to distract others from the fact that he is as hopelessly riddled with insecurities as a block of Swiss cheese. The truth is, Gareth is ... a science nerd. Yes - a socially awkward, bookish misfit who was teased and made fun of as a child and mercilessly trained into the superiority of his position as an adult, so he grew up using his cold hauteur as a shield to keep people away - and consequently developed no social skills whatsoever. One of Jenny's mystical tasks is for Gareth to befriend his man of business -and he simply has no idea how to do it and is subsequently humiliated in the attempt. As a bit of a social outcast myself, I found him easy to empathize with and know first-hand just how quickly social skills can atrophy when you isolate yourself.

Gareth tries very hard but often can't help the unintentionally offensive things that come out of his facehole. He's graceless and bumbling but always honest and well-intentioned, so that instead of annoying, it's very sweet when he says the wrong thing because you know he's thinking the right thing and will do the right thing.

As for Jenny, I had a harder time understanding her in the beginning - primarily because she develops an inexplicable attraction to Gareth while he's saying horrible things to her and promising to ruin her. He poses an enormous threat to her reputation and way of life - but gosh darn it she just wants to kiss him!

Her development improves as the novel progresses. Gareth's accusations force her to examine the last twelve years of her life, and determine whether the "life's a dog-eat-dog world" is enough of an excuse to continue with what she's doing. However, once she regains her sense of self-respect, she refuses to let it go - and this ends up complicating Gareth and Jenny's relationship. She knows it's unlikely that they have a wedded future - but she's become too tired of compromising her principles for her own comfort to consent to being a mistress. Gareth may love her, but until he respects her as much as she respects herself she won't have him. One of my main problems with romance novels with Alphhole heroes is that the heroines often settle for love but leave respect out of the equation - how refreshing that we get a heroine who won't settle for less!

As for the secondary cast - it's a pretty shallow pool. Blakely's cousin Ned gets the most attention as someone who seems way too devastatingly young to be battling depression (presumably that will be handled in his book, Trial By Desire), and "Wicked Gift"'s William White has a pleasant cameo. Other than that, we have Blakely's sister Laura who has all the depth, brains and nuance of a wet kleenex and seems to serve as a whinging crybaby plot device upon which Gareth practices his stunted nurturing abilities. Thankfully, she only has about four scenes in the book before she's married off so she won't be popping up in any sequels (fingers crossed).

Proof By Seduction, while it doesn't dazzle as much as "This Wicked Gift," is still a solid debut with enjoyable protagonists. Milan's writing still sparkles, her plotlines are still unique - let's just hope her pacing improves.


  1. Anonymous6:49 PM

    How can someone be "way too devastatingly young to be battling depression"? Depression can affect people in their teens, and I assume that character is at least a teen.

  2. Sorry - maybe I should have been more clear. I thought that narratively it was very sad that character so young and full of promise would have to fight depression - and it will certainly make him an interesting character in his own book. I didn't mean to indicate it was inaccurate or impossible.