Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-201893-9
Historical Romance, 2011
Lecia Cornwall’s debut effort Secrets of a Proper Countess is like a thoroughly over-seasoned meal. There is just too much of everything, and unfortunately, everything of this everything comprises bland clichés with very little done to distinguish them from… well, everything else out there.
We have, for a start, unnecessary secrets that end up prolonging everyone’s pain. Isobel Maitland is required by the conditions of her late husband’s will to be a well-behaved woman who cannot even lift her leg too high or her son will fall into the custody of her unpleasant in-laws. But, of course, she can’t reveal those reasons to the hero, Phineas Archer, because clearly I will have more fun if he suspects her of being a spy due to her acting like a hysterical headless chicken after every time she has an orgasm. Of course, the need to be proper and what not doesn’t stop our heroine from making out and making love to our hero, or even asking him to make her his mistress (in exchange for locating her missing son). Unfortunately, it also doesn’t stop her from being crazy or even slap-happy towards the poor hero every time they shag. Clearly, in this case, “proper countess” is an euphemism for “melodramatic wretch”.
And, believe it or not, that’s pretty much the plot of this story. Isobel bends over for free to Phineas during a masked ball, although she will insist that she never intended to take things that far. That won’t be the only time she puts out and then goes crazy with the self-recriminations afterward, mind you. I have no idea what Phineas sees in this useless crybaby dingbat who blames him every time she slips and succumbs to her own lust for him. He’s already gotten the milk for free by page 17 of this story, after all. Isobel has issues about being even a little like her mother (her mother had a reputation for being even more sexy, after all). She also claims that she is not good enough for Phineas (her secrets, you see – oh, those secrets), and therefore, she doesn’t want a relationship. But when he seems to behave like they are not going to get married by the next sunset, she acts like an offended cow. Isobel is an indecisive and often contradictory dingbat. Seriously, what does Phineas see in this creature? As for Phineas, yes, he’s another rake who’s actually a spy for the Crown, shagging his way through society for the greater good of the motherland.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, this story has too much of everything. Stupid leaps to wrong conclusions, unnecessary hiding of secrets and the painful efforts to lie on the idiot heroine’s part, villains after villains out to torture our heroine, that brat plot device who is conveniently in the background of the story until the author needs him to go missing for the sake of conflict, matchmaking secondary characters galore, inept spy subplots… they are all here, all crammed up the wazoo to the point that the later chapters of this book are pure drama after drama to the point of overkill. The story is very busy, but because the author handles each element in a half-baked manner, nothing really comes together well. The entire tale feels disjointed, like a montage of very clichéd scenes lifted from all kinds of stories to be pasted together without rhyme or reason.
The characters are flat. The author tells me that Phineas is a good spy, but that fellow behaves more like a horny toad led around by his small head. When it takes a normal civilian to get into his head that perhaps the “M” on a handkerchief that he believes to implicate Isobel as a spy may just be a “W” instead, that’s when poor Phineas really should consider early retirement. Isobel is a familiar stereotype – that idiot heroine who makes any situation worse with her emotional hysterics, who acts like a violated nun after every time she willingly participates in sexual congress, and who is designed to be nothing but a victim in this story. The romance is, like everything else about this story, half-baked and tedious, comprising scenes of these two lustily boinking and then Isobel wailing in guilt the first moment she can catch her breath.
Perhaps the author is as bored with her characters as I am, because Ms Cornwall proceeds to put on her wig and pad the bust of her corset before inserting herself into this story as Marianne, Phineas’s sister. Marianne exists for three reasons. One, to tell the hero and the heroine that they are made for each other, because Marianne just knows. She does! She has seen how Phineas looks at Isobel, so it is love. Really! Marianne also exists in this story to meddle and pull off ridiculous stunts with no regards to her reputation, because she just loves to set up scenarios for her brother to have plenty of sex with Isobel in name of true love. Some of these stunts only prolong the conflict between those two, but that’s okay because it’s not like this story already has a million things going on already. And finally, Marianne is here to be loved by readers as only an author avatar could be: she is so spunky, sassy, outrageous, capable – or so Ms Cornwall imagines – that she is clearly a designated scene-stealer, turning Isobel into her confused mouth-breathing sidekick in every scene she shares with that imbecile. Perhaps Marianne is supposed to be some kind of sequel bait, but the only thing I’d like to see this ridiculous over-the-top plot device with heaving bosoms and annoying attitude featured in is a gory serial killer story where she gets brutally dismembered in the first chapter.
Still, were not for that clown Marianne, this story would be a far more bland and forgettable read. As it is, Secrets of a Proper Countess is just an over-seasoned broth with a fly called Marianne floating at the top and a cockroach called Isobel at the bottom of the bowl, while a weevil called Phineas is in there… somewhere.