Wednesday, June 02, 2010

"The Making of a Duchess," by Shana Galen

The Chick: Sarah Smith, a.k.a. "Mademoiselle Serafina Artois, Comtesse de Guyenne." A young governess, Sarah discovers her employer is a spy for Britain's Foreign Office when he needs her to fill in for an injured spook and find evidence that the Duc de Valere, a French expatriate, is really a traitor.
The Rub: Sarah is really, really bad at spying, and the Duc is super-cute - but if she fails, her boss will totally fire her.
Dream Casting: A younger Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Julien Harcourt, Duc de Valere. After losing nearly his entire family in the French Revolution, Julien's spent years smuggling himself back and forth across the Channel looking for his vanished loved ones.
The Rub: While his duty also dictates that he marry another French aristocrat like the lovely Serafina - she refuses him. And vomits at odd times. Why?
Dream Casting: Zachary Quinto.

The Plot:

Sir Northrop: Spy on the Duc or you're FIRED!

Sarah: Eeep! *pukes*

Julien: Strange - you smell like upchuck, yet I find you strangely attractive. Marry me!

Sarah: Crap.

Sir Northrop: Sarah, have you found anything? Have I mentioned I'm evil yet?

Sarah: Double crap. Confession time, Julien, I'm not a spy.

Julien: Well, duh. Wanna help me find my long-lost brother instead?

Sarah: Yay!

Guards: *in French* Who goes there?

Julien: Quick, a distraction!

Sarah: *pukes*

Julien's Long-Lost Sequel Baiting Brother: *rescued*

Sir Northrop: By the way, did I mention I killed your parents? And that you're secretly a countess?

Sarah: Huh. Convenient. Arrest him!

Julien: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Poor, Unloved Governess with a Secret Past

1 Handsome Duc with a Secret Agenda

2 Evil Incompetent Spies

2 Bouts of Fear-Induced Vomiting

1 Long-Lost Sequel-Baiting Brother

1 Dandy Smuggler

The Word: When I first started reading this book, I found that the plot of The Making of a Duchess shared a lot of superficial similarities with Laura Kinsale's latest novel, Lessons in French. We have a hero who lives with his mum, both of whom escaped from the French Revolution with little more than the clothes on their backs. The hero is torn between his English and his French identities and his title provides little more than a few extra letters attached to his name on a dinner invitation. His mother is one of those Our Lady of Perpetual Impish Melancholy types, who pretend to be gullible while secretly knowing everything, about everybody, particularly when the plot demands it. We also get a heroine who believes she is completely plain and unlovable.

However, the crucial difference that makes Lessons in French an enjoyable romp and The Making of a Duchess incredibly silly is that unlike Lessons in French , the actual meat-and-bones plot of The Making of a Duchess hinges on the complete and unbelievable incompetence of several key characters for the story to work.

It's 1801, and our heroine, Sarah Smith, divides her time between acting as governess to Sir Northrop's children, wallowing in self-pity over her unloved orphaned existence, and complaining about how ugly her wide, ripe, bee-stung strawberry lips are (Awful Heroine Cliche #2). One day, however, her employer takes her aside and reveals he has an entirely different job for her. It turns out Sir Northrop's a spy for the British Foreign Office, and he suspects that Julien Harcourt, the Duc de Valere, is a traitor.

However, the female operative who was originally assigned to infiltrate Julien's social circle was injured on the job and Northrop needs a replacement at the last minute. Northrop, as well as the injured agent known as the Widow, believe Sarah is the perfect candidate because she roughly matches the Widow's description, speaks fluent French, and she's good with kids. Yup. I'm totally not kidding - Northrop equates "patient with young children" with "mad deception and infiltration skills." Although, come to think of it, given how willful and childish some lesser romance Alpha Males can be, governess experience could come in handy.

Northrop tells Sarah that she'll be masquerading as the highborn Mademoiselle Serafina Artois - a countess from an exiled French family who were old friends of the Harcourts before coming to a grisly (albeit not widely-known) end. Oh, and Sarah only has three days to learn her cover before she's due to meet the duc. Oh, and if she doesn't agree, Northrop will fire her and blackball her from ever getting another governess position.

Um, yeah. We're barely a couple of chapters in and already we're asked to believe that a professional spy would send an unarmed woman to spy on a possible traitor
  • with no previous spy experience,
  • with only three days to adapt to an aristocratic cover, despite a lifetime of living as lowerclass,
  • with a cobbled-together, incomplete backstory that requires fluency in Italian, which Sarah doesn't possess,
  • and with only a lady's maid for back-up, a lady's maid who only speaks Italian
Armed with these paltry advantages, I suppose I can't really blame the poor, unprepared heroine when she meets the handsome, dashing Julien Harcourt and literally vomits with terror.

Thanks to the French Revolution, Julien lost his father, his young brothers, and his home and had to start over with his mother in England. Despite the war with Napoleon, Julien has repeatedly smuggled himself into France to search for evidence that his lost brothers are alive. When he receives a letter from a former servant who knows the location of his brother Armand, Julien knows it's his duty to do everything possible to return to France and rescue him.

He also recognizes his aristocratic duty to marry and carry on the family name, preferably with a Reign of Terror escapee like himself, in order to flip the metaphorical bird to the dirty, unwashed peasants who tried to eradicate his kind from the face of the earth. Serafina, the daughter of old family friends, is the perfect candidate. Far from being turned off by the delicate beauty who re-experienced her breakfast into his priceless Ming vase, Julien is inexplicably attracted to "Serafina." However, when he proposes marriage in a typically businesslike, Alpha-Male fashion, Sarah (appalled and unprepared) refuses him - which only serves to spark his interest more.

Needless to say, Sarah Fucks Things Up Repeatedly, and because she is an Unaffected Pure-Hearted Innocent, this is supposed to be charming and novel instead of annoying and contrived. Sarah is grating in the first half of the novel, as the chickenhearted martyr who constantly wars between pants-shitting terror and self-loathing depression (about how she's an unloved, unwanted, orphaned governess with repulsively pillow-soft, silken lips, in case you forgot and missed the 10 times she reminds the reader of this).

However, she only gets worse as the novel progresses. At least at the start, you can't really blame her for being out of her element, because her Incompetent Spy Superiors Who Are Totally Not Incompetent Obvious Villains (Oh Wait, Yes They Are) do put her in an impossible situation. In the second half of the novel, though, she no longer Fucks Things Up Repeatedly because she's in the dark - no, now she Fucks Things Up Repeatedly because she's an idiot. Or worse, to serve her own purposes, such as when she "charmingly" withholds the real location of Julien's long-lost brother and holds her knowledge of it over his head to keep him from leaving her behind. Yes, because your need to be the centre of attention is a much higher priority than finding the long-lost brother who's been imprisoned for years.

Julien, however, is refreshingly direct. While he holds to the too-familiar Why Am I Inexplicably Jealous Around This Strange Girl Who Smells Like Flowers and Purity? mindset at first, once he realizes he likes Sarah, he tells her - like, right away. He's remarkably honest with his developing feelings and doesn't prevaricate or use his broody, angsty tragic past as an excuse.

However, even a nice hero can't fix a story that only works thanks to the stupidity of the villains and the incompetence of the heroine, where the "twist" about the heroine's past is clearly telegraphed, E-mailed, candy-gram-ed, and FedExed by PAGE 43, and the rest of the spy plot is simplified to the point of wallpaper historical.


  1. I agree with you completely. And don't even get me started on page 43--I was tempted to toss the book across the room as soon as I read that. There's obvious and then there's OBVIOUS.

  2. Wait, is Northrop his SURNAME? Cause getting a title wrong in that basic way is a definite wallbanger.

  3. I think I'll pass.

  4. You are right. A good hero is not enough to make up for a daft heroine and lazy plotting.

    I did find myself thinking about the similarities between the hero in this one and in Lessons in French, but I think I found Julien to be a much more believable French emigre, simply because Trev only really used his Frenchness as a mask when he needed to. For Julien though I think he was French to the core.