by Sandy Hingston, historical (2003)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-18907-4
If Sandy Hingston can tighten her characterization while doing what she is doing now, she would be an author to fill the vacuum in between Judith Ivory books. The Affair, plot-wise, is tighter than last year's The Suitor, but characterization, if anything, is even looser than before. This heroine-centric story would have worked if the heroine's characterization doesn't bewilder me.
I'm not fond at all of Christiane, the Countess d'Oliveri, when she appeared in the author's previous books as the scandalous co-owner of Mrs Treadwell's Academy for the Elevation of Young Women. The Affair is her story, and I find myself softening towards her. Christiane, twenty odd years ago, was driven from English society due to a scandal. She made her way to France, where she opened a gambling house and enjoyed life as a mistress for rich men. Life for her comes to a full circle when she returns to England to start this school to teach young women to be independent and world-wise.
Her history with Gannon Finn goes way back to when she was twenty-four and he, twenty. She was the mistress of a French dude, and he is the young virginal dingbat thoroughly besotted with her. Laboring under the delusion that she was miserable living in sin - she wasn't - he deigned to save her or something, only to end up almost killing that poor French guy in a duel. She is not amused. They part ways, unsurprisingly.
Come to today. She is the headmistress of a school for debutantes and he is a rake infamous for a string of broken engagements. Cute irony, I must say. He is forty and she is in her forties now. When his niece Claire loses her parents to a highwayman, Gannon sends her to the school, and there you go. They meet again. So what now for these two?
Alas, the romance between Gannon and Christiane is actually underdeveloped, fleshed out mostly through several memorable love scenes. The focus of this story is Christiane's character development as she tries to find a way to help the traumatized Claire. The only problem here is that Christiane starts out a wonderful character - not wise, not too mature, but oh so human - but as the story progresses, she slowly morphs into a more stereotypical conservative "I'm sad, honey, because I can never give you a baby, eek, eek, eek!" type. I am still trying to figure out how a woman who is the epitome of the Minx That Never Grew Up a few chapters ago can end up craving domesticity in a way that will get her unceremoniously booted out of the Liberated Visionary Women club.
Ms Hingston's prose is a mix of old-school lush opulence laced with very contemporary humor. It's an unusual combination that actually works very well with me. However, readers preferring more "historically accurate" (read: "adhering rigidly to the bluestocking and rake formula") romance will balk when Christiane does a mock orgasm thing out of When Harry Met Sally, only better, just to show Gannon that he wasn't that good in the sack when he was a kid. There are some also very cynical observations that I get a chuckle out of, particular when the author concludes that sometimes women do go great lengths to deceive themselves. Christiane may be on the slightly spoiled, always impetuous side (check out the scene where her seamstress discovers a strand of white hair on Christiane), but she also has a degree of self-awareness, and that's good.
The story, however, doesn't flow as smooth as it should, and I am sure I can see places in this story where the author cobbles some more conventional elements into Christiane's personality in some attempt to give this book a wider audience among the notoriously conservative readers out there. On one hand, that can be good - I hope this book flies off the shelves because damn it, if I can read at least three books like this in a year - books that doesn't conform to any clear-cut formula - I'll be one happy reader. On the other hand, I fail to get a clear grasp of the heroine's personality. She's colorful, she's passionate, and she's strong at chapter four, and she's a blathering mess concerned with what people thought of her by chapter twenty-nine. Then there's Evelyn Treadwell. How can a woman who encourages her students to be liberal be also so tightfisted, conservative, and judgmental towards Christiane at the same time? Why would someone like Christiane will even care what a prudish dipstick like Evelyn think of her? This isn't a case of women behaving with degrees of complexity as much as anachronistic behaviors at work.
Also, as the story progresses, Claire's love story with a sweet Quaker guy (although David's speech pattern irritates me silly) hijacks the book, reducing Gannon - almost a non-entity - into a complete non-entity and Christiane into a supporting character in what is essentially her star vehicle. I like Claire and David's story with its semi-VC Andrews family-secret overtones and all, but still, it doesn't feel right that Christiane ends up playing second fiddle in her own story. Christiane also becomes somewhat of a nitwit in events that lead up to the denouement. Oh, that poor gal.
The Affair is very readable, and Christiane d'Oliveri has the potential to be a colorful, flamboyant heroine to remember. Hence the weaknesses in this book only frustrates me more. If the plotting flaws are all there is to this book, I'd still be more than happy to give this book a keeper grade. In this case, however, Christiane is as much a problem as the plot flaws. I still find The Affair one of the more enjoyable reads over the weeks because it's so refreshing as much as entertaining, but ultimately this is one book that pains me to give it less than a two thumbs up recommendation. It can be so, so good. What a disappointment, really.
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