The Education of Mrs. Brimley
by Donna MacMeans
(Berkley, $6.99, R) ISBN 978-9-425-21830-3
***
Here’s something that doesn’t happen very often. I liked the book, but I didn’t like the plot.

Emma Brimley has been hired as a teacher at Pettibone School for Young Ladies under false pretenses. When she applied, she claimed to be a widow. In fact, she has never been married. She assumed a false name and forged a reference in order to escape her uncle’s home. Her mother recently died, and Emma fears his plans for her.

Upon arriving in the wilds of Yorkshire, Emma discovers that the two spinster sisters who run the school have hired her to instruct the older girls in what would now be termed sex education. The problem is that Emma is as ignorant of the basics of sexual reproduction as the sisters and the students she is to teach.

When she first arrived in Yorkshire, she was driven to the school in a carriage owned by Lord Nicholas Chambers. The drunken, debauched lord was sleeping off an episode of carousing in one corner of the carriage. Emma learns that his reputation has earned him the appellation Lord Bedchambers. She decides that Chambers is her only available source for the information she needs.

At first Emma is mistaken for a tavern maid who was to pose for Chambers. He is a painter seeking recognition for his artistic talent. To do this, he needs the Royal Academy to accept one of his paintings for the summer exhibition. His landscapes have been rejected. He has in mind to paint a mythological subject on a grand scale. He strikes a bargain with Emma that he will answer one question for each item of clothing she removes. Eventually, he manipulates the situation, and she agrees to pose for him.

It is a foregone conclusion that Emma’s secrets cannot remain hidden forever.

The Education of Mrs. Brimley is based on the stock plot ‘the virgin and the rake,’ subplot ‘talk dirty and get naked quickly.’ This has never struck me as a very credible plot, but when a book is set in the Victorian era – The Education of Mrs. Brimley is set in 1876 –with all the uptight strictures of that period, it seems particularly improbable. For readers who are familiar with The Lady’s Tutor by Robin Schone; this is a kinder, gentler variation.

Not only are some of the scenes anachronistic, they come across as ridiculous whatever the time period. Emma may be an innocent virgin, but she has the eager enthusiasm of a preteen-aged boy. And her students may as well be hookers-in-training for all the virginal reticence they show. There’s this scene with tongues....

There are some nagging problems. The time lapse between Emma applying for a teaching position and then showing up for duty is so abbreviated they must have been faxing documents back and forth. Nicholas reflects on his “gene pool.” The characters may dress in Victorian costume, but they often speak and behave as though the book were set at least a century later.

What saves the book is the hero and heroine and their romance. Considering his debauched history and reputation, Nicholas is a pretty nice guy. Emma is equally appealing. Her poor opinion of herself is understandable in light of the treatment she received while living in her uncle’s house. The growing attraction between them is credible; these are characters who are right for each other. It’s a bit aggravating toward the end how long it takes for Nicholas to come to his senses, but at least he recognizes Emma’s value well before she does.

This plot’s primary purpose is to provide ample opportunity for sexual tension between the characters. In that respect, it excels. The Education of Mrs. Brimley has enough sexual tension for several novels. But for all the how-to, explicit conversation between the two, it’s the less graphic moments – for example, his finger on her chin – that show the depth of feeling between the two.

This strong debut holds promise for future books. Donna MacMeans is definitely a newcomer to watch. Readers who check out The Education of Mrs. Brimley will not be disappointed.

--Lesley Dunlap


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