|I can’t remember a book that was awaited with such enthusiasm as Laura Kinsale’s new release, Lessons in French. One popular website gushed excitedly in August that it would only be five months before the book arrived, such is the reputation that Kinsale enjoys among serious romance readers. (Yes, there is such a thing.) Obviously, I was pleased as punch when Dede sent me the arc to review. Having now read the book, I wonder how avid Kinsale fans will respond. It is a significant departure from the deep, angsty stories she usually tells.
Kinsale herself admits that she wrote Lessons in French after her dark and somewhat controversial book, Shadowheart. She wanted to try something lighter. She then put the manuscript “in the drawer,” the place where authors consign the stories that their editors or their agents tell them are unmarketable. She informs us that she “forgot about it,” until encouraged to take another look. Its publication is the result of this second look and Sourcebooks commitment to develop its romance list. This is not a bad thing because Lessons in French is the work of a talented wordsmith with a lot of attractive features. If it has some problems, it nonetheless has considerable charm.
Lessons in French is a reunion romance, a tale of teenage friends and sweethearts who are separated by circumstances and who meet again nine years later. Twenty-seven year old Lady Callista Taillefaire is clearly on the shelf. Her recently deceased father, the Earl of Shelford, had tried mightily to get her married. Indeed, she had been betrothed three times and three times she had been jilted. The “breach of promise” payments collected had added considerably to her very generous portion, but still, she is a three time loser. Her only hope is that her younger sister will marry a man who will be willing to take her – and her prize bull Hubert – into his household. She can’t continue to live with the new earl’s unpleasant spouse.
Callie’s heart was not broken with her engagements; she has really not cared deeply for any of her fiancés. Indeed, she has not really cared since her father had forced her neighbor and sweetheart to leave the country. That her father had found the two engaged in “heavy petting” in his carriage house and that said sweetheart had few if any prospects makes his response understandable does not mean that the separation was not painful.
Trevelyan Davis d’Augustin, Duc de Monceaux may have an impressive title and twenty generations of French nobility in his background, but to the earl he was nothing more than a penniless émigré with designs on his daughter. Trev had been born while his mother and grandmother were fleeing the French Terror that had claimed his father ‘s life. They had lived near the Shelford estate in increasing genteel poverty. Like many political refugees, Trev was never sure where he belonged. When a lack of funds brought him back to Dove House from school, one of the only bright spots was his friendship with Callie. The two embarked on teenage pranks and adventures and friendship turned to something more. When the earl forced Trev to leave his home and Callie, he became, if not self-destructive, at best self-defeating. Now, discovering that his mother is very ill, he has returned to Herefordshire. And meets Callie again.
One of the best things about Lessons in French is the relationship between Callie and Trev. The two quickly fall into their old friendship and Callie, who has accepted her invisibility, comes to life. Clearly, the spark is still there. But Callie has become convinced of her own unattractiveness and Trev feels, if anything, even more unsuitable than he had been nine years earlier. And he has good reason, since he is currently in deep trouble with the law.
Kinsale has created a hero and heroine who are nicely atypical. Modern authors are always trying to find a way to make their heroines “atypical” for their times, with unusual interests. Callie is certainly one of a kind. How many Regency era heroines are committed to bull breeding, with an intimate relationship with a prize bull? Hubert, said bull, plays an important role in the story in a number of funny ways. Trev is a less than heroic hero, in many ways, although this makes him more interesting and appealing. He has not spent the past nine years pining for Callie (and to be honest, she does not appear to have spent the time reliving the past), but he recognizes that Callie is a special part of his life and, if it takes him some time to realize that they should be together, no matter what, well this makes him more human.
In writing Lessons in French, Kinsale seems to be trying to channel the best of Heyer, who had an unparalleled ability to introduce elements of pure farce into her stories. Nobody has ever equaled the great Georgette, but Kinsale comes close a few times. If I didn’t laugh out loud, at least I smiled broadly. Imagine a huge bull in the kitchen. Yes, it has real comedic potential.
If Lessons in French is not a complete success, I don’t blame the author. Rather, I blame the editor. Romance readers do not always appreciate the role of the editor in improving a story. The book needed to be tightened up and, to be honest, significantly pared down. The middle sagged more than it should have, which is a pity. I admire Kinsale for trying something different. If Lessons in French is not as enjoyable that it could have been, it is still the work of a talented author who can tell a good story.