To Charm a Naughty Countess, by Theresa Romain

>> Monday, June 09, 2014

TITLE: To Charm a Naughty Countess
AUTHOR: Theresa Romain

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: 1816 England
TYPE: Historical romance
SERIES: Follows It Takes Two To Tangle

Can a reclusive duke...

Brilliant but rumored mad, Michael Layward, the impoverished Duke of Wyverne, has no success courting heiresses until widowed Lady Stratton takes up his cause—after first refusing his suit.

Win London's most powerful countess?

Caroline Graves, the popular Countess of Statton, sits alone at the pinnacle of London society and has vowed never to remarry. When Michael—her counterpart in an old scandal—returns to town after a long absence, she finds herself as enthralled with him as ever. As she guides the anxiety-ridden duke through the trials of London society, Caroline realizes that she's lost her heart. But if she gives herself to the only man she's ever loved, she'll lose the hard won independence she prizes above all.

Theresa Romain has been on my radar for a while. Her plots sound interesting, and especially the description she posted of her upcoming book in the Dear Author promo thread: "A Pygmalion story with a virgin hero and a rakish heroine." A few of us on twitter have decided to try and read and review at least a classic historical romance a month, trying to rekindle our love for the genre. It hasn't been going great, but this seemed like a good candidate.

Michael, duke of Wyverne, has always been socially awkward. His first real interactions with high society came when he travelled from his Lancashire estate to London at 18, and they ended in disaster. Since then, he's been holed up in his estate, putting in place careful plans to repair the family fortunes. Things are going all right until 1816, the Year Without A Summer. With crop failures all around, the little credit he had left dries up completely. The obvious solution is for Michael to use his biggest asset, his dukedom, and find himself a rich heiress who's interested in a title.

The problem is, Michael's isolated life has led to rumours that he's mad. He hopes that by showing up in London he'll show that this is not the case, but the truth is, he's pretty eccentric and has no idea how to behave. The rumours are not that easy to dispel. And that's where Caroline comes in.

Caroline is now a rich widow, the Countess of Stratton, but when she first met Michael, she was a young d├ębutante. We know from the beginning that she was somehow involved whatever happened to chase him out of London all those years earlier, and that this had social consequences on her as well. However, we don't know the details until quite late. When Michael meets her again, he immediately proposes. For him, she's the perfect solution to his problems. He liked her then and he still likes her now. Caroline, though, can't see what she'll get from the marriage, and instead proposes that she help Michael repair his reputation and find him a bride.

There were many things I appreciated here. I liked Caroline's attitude. Yeah, Michael might be a duke, but she's already a countess, she's rich, she enjoys her life in London and it's not like she's celibate (we even see that classic HR scene of one of our protagonists' post-coital interactions with a lover, but it's the heroine here, rather than the hero). Why on earth would she give up her freedom, and for someone who doesn't love her? Even after they have sex, she's still being cool-headed about it.

I also liked the constant awareness of the unusually cold weather. It's not just the setup, it's how it affects things like the availability of food, even for aristocrats in London, and the activities people do. Without explicitly going on about it, Romain evokes what a tough time this must have been for regular people. And I must say, before I moved to England I think I would have found it unbelievable that people wouldn't have been freaking out much more about a year where there was no summer at all, wondering if it was the end of the world. Having experienced a few "summers" here, I was not quite as worried!

And now we come to the negatives. While I had no trouble believing the stuff above, I had trouble buying character motivations and behaviour. Michael felt unbelievably naive about the way society works, even for someone who's spent his life in relative isolation. The episode with Caroline the first time they met, for instance, which led to him leaving London and her reputation being endangered: I just couldn't buy that he wouldn't have been even dimly aware that there would be consequences for her. Or that if he didn't then, as an 18-year-old, he wouldn't now have caught on. Some of his actions and reactions seem to point towards him having some sort of mental health issue, but that's not really borne out in the text. The conclusion seems to be that he's basically someone who gets stressed out by difficult social situations and can have panic attacks due to that stress, but that didn't seem like quite enough for his behaviour and reactions. I was also doubtful about the way other people react to him, the extent to which his social position was vulnerable. It didn't ring quite true.

I also had issues with the main romantic conflict, the reasons that kept Caroline and Michael apart. I didn't get why Caroline was so convinced Michael just couldn't fall in love. She was awfully certain about it. It all wore a bit thin after a while. It felt like they were going round and round in a circle, never really moving anywhere, and it got very tedious. To be honest, I ended up wanting to skim.

So, another month, another historical that doesn't work. Sigh.



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