Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-3701-0
Historical Romance, 2010
I know, I know. Laura Kinsale’s fans have been waiting for so long for her new book, Lessons in French. Well, it’s now out, so I’m pretty sure they are right now devouring the words from this book and sighing in rapture at how beautifully the author dots the I’s and J’s in her story. Anyone far less enamored of the myth that Laura Kinsale’s fanatical fans have built around her may just wonder what the fuss is though after reading this book. This book is a good read, but it’s not shatteringly amazing.
Callista Taillefaire knows that she is doomed to remain on the shelf. In sleepy Shelford, she is known as the daughter of the late Earl of Shelford who managed to let three beaus slip away. She also knows more about animal husbandry than most genteel ladies should. At 27, Callie knows that she has three options in life now that her cousin, the new Earl, had taken a wife and her sister Hermione has found herself a fiancé: “either billeting herself upon Hermey and Sir Thomas for life, living out her days under the whip of Lady Shelford’s sharp tongue, or residing permanently under a pile of hay”. Then into her life once more sweeps Trevelyan Davis d’Augustin, the duc de Monceaux and possessor of other fancy titles of French aristocracy.
About ten years ago, Trev’s mother moved in to Shelford with her children, leaving behind an executed husband and their possessions when the folks in France started using the guillotine on everyone. While the Monceaux folks were tolerated by the locals, Callie’s father thought that it would be a good idea to have Callie learn French from Madame de Monceaux. What Callie’s father didn’t realize until too late was that Madame also has a handsome son around the place. Callie and Trev back then had a giddy teenage thing, almost moving to third base when Callie’s father put a stop to the whole thing.
So now he’s back. While Callie is glad that he’s back at his very ill mother’s side, she is unable to stop feeling a little… happy that he’s here. Still, what she and he had was a teenage fling, and she is now wiser and more sensible. As for Trev, he has a secret. He had written to his mother happy news over the years, culminating with the grand news that he has recovered their lost family fortune. All that is a lie, however. He spent the last few years as an operator of the Fancy, building his fortune on all kinds of gaming bouts both fair and rigged until he was framed for a crime. He is back in town, lying low to avoid being captured and sent to hang. So we have two characters who are determined to remain only as good friends with each other. You and I both know how that will end, don’t we?
Lessons in French is an excellent example of how an author can take two familiar characters – the countrified miss and the naughty rogue – and yet turn them into three-dimensional likable characters with various layers of depths. Callie’s behavior follows the standard Avon Romantic Boyfriend Test script, but Ms Kinsale builds up Callie’s insecurities in such a realistic manner that I can certainly understand why she would choose to pull an act that is pretty much standard clichéd plot device to prolong a story in other books. Both she and Trev play the “I’m no good for you” song to each other, but in this story, they, especially Trev, have a pretty good reason to do so. Therefore, while there is nothing too unexpected or out of the ordinary in these characters’ romance, I’m touched and I have a good time following them around.
As for the plot, well, it’s a bit hard to give a good coherent picture because after Trev shows up in Shelford, the story line gives away into a series of meetings and encounters. The middle parts of the story involve Callie’s adorable prized bull. The latest parts of the story see an ex-suitor of Callie intensifying his courtship of her. You just have to read the story and go with the flow.
I personally feel that the story starts out very good, with solid banter system in place between Trey and Callie along with some really heartwarming scenes. Trey may be the dark and dangerous-looking prodigal son, but he is the healthier version of Heathcliff. He is touchingly devoted to Callie and even goes out of his way behind her back to ensure that she is happy. He’s too adorable, really. But as the story progresses, especially into the last third of this book, I feel that the momentum of the story has dissipated. The two characters keep pushing and pulling at each other. They are good together, but they at the same time keep some important words to themselves, so each person feels that the other person is not keen on making the relationship permanent. When the happy ending comes, I’m more relieved than anything else. Finally, they get it.
A part of me feels sheepish that I find myself enjoying Lessons in French, a lighthearted romantic romp, far more than the author’s angst-ridden melodrama, but that is the way the die falls sometimes, really. However, while I adore the couple, the story seems to meander around after a while. I end up with this feeling that this book could have been a little bit better.