CONVERSATIONAL REVIEW: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale
It has been five years since we've had a new Laura Kinsale book to read, and Lessons in French is quite a departure from her last book, Shadowheart.
Callie, or more properly, Lady Callista Taillefaire, is a 27-year old thrice-jilted heiress who wants nothing more than to live in relative peace – and raise her prize bulls. She believes that the only real attraction she possesses is her fortune, that her coppery hair, shy disposition, and agricultural passion are not only unfashionable, but also downright repellent to any man of worth. And especially to one man, in particular, whom she hasn't seen in ten years but who regularly stars in her imaginative daydreams.
Trev, or more properly, Trevelyan Davis d'Augustin, Duc de Monceaux, fled Shelford and Callie after her father, the earl, found the two of them hidden in his carriage, practicing more than the French Callie had been supposedly learning from Trev's mother, the duchesse. It was one thing to politely tolerate displaced French émigrés as neighbors, but quite another to tolerate one's daughter being ruined by a young, handsome, wild, and clearly unworthy young Frenchman. Now that the duchesse is so ill, however, Trev has returned, a wealthy man, with the happy news that he has won back the family estate as Monceaux.
Trev has done nothing of the sort, of course, having spent the past ten years in a somewhat itinerant and disreputable series of roles, from French prisoner to military translator to boxing promoter. It is the last that has made Trev's fortune as well as his fate, which at the moment is not looking so optimistic. For unbeknownst to Callie and his mother, Trev is not even supposed to be in England, else he be hanged for a forgery it matters not whether he actually committed.
But he is happy to take the risk, not only for his mother's sake, but also for the happy surprise that Callie is still in Shelford and still unmarried. And it is very clear to the duchesse (and likely even the village goats, who "very properly kept their opinions to themselves"), if not to the thrice-rejected Callie, that Trev is in love with the young woman with whom he shared so much youthful passion and so many harebrained adventures.
So what's one more?
Callie's cousin, the new earl, gambles away Callie's beloved Hubert, a bull of such fine conformation that Callie is planning on taking him straight to the upcoming county exhibition at Hereford. When Trev's plans to buy Hubert back from Colonel Davenport (who has wanted Hubert for quite some time, and who also plans to show him at Hereford), go awry, Trev and Callie find themselves falling right back into their own companionability, with Trev thinking this will be his last indulgence before leaving England for good, and Callie thinking she will spend three days with the one man she truly loves before retiring to the country as a spinster heiress.
The farcical adventures that follow implicate nearly everyone in the novel, from Major Sturgeon, one of Callie's three suitors who has returned to re-win her hand, to a mysterious woman from Trev's past, to Trev's clever, ailing mother, to the newly-minted fiancée of Callie's younger sister, Hermione.
There's a point in the novel where Trev tells his mother that Callie "is a little heroine: she is all heart," and that's basically how I felt about the book as a whole. I found it a very emotional read, even though the tone was often quite light and even a bit cynical, at times. Callie and Trev's loneliness was so palpable to me as a reader, and it reminded me of several other, darker, Kinsale books, especially My Sweet Folly and Seize The Fire. Callie seems much more like Olympia or Folie to me than Merlin from Midsummer Moon, the book to which people seem to be comparing Lessons in French. And Trev felt much more like Robert Cambourne, or S.T. Maitland, or Sheridan Drake, without so much angst and past trauma. Despite the whimsy and wit, there was a definite thread of regret in the narrative, too:
It was not that she sounded disappointed, or miffed, or offended, the way any number of women of his past had sounded when he had tactfully refused their very agreeable offers. She didn't weep or withdraw. There was only that single small syllable she spoke, but he heard all the damage, the hurt they must have given her, those bastards who had left her standing at the altar or alone in the line of chairs against the wall, all their excuses and lies, those blind, blind, stupid bastards who never saw what was right before their eyes.
I don't know if it's a common timeframe among certain books, or Trev's somewhat cynical romanticism, but I loved the sense of longing portrayed in both Trev and Callie's characters; it gave the novel as a whole a poignancy that felt a bit darker rather than lighter to me.
I've actually had a hard time going back to Lessons in French for a reread, the same way I do for Seize the Fire, precisely because it's a little bleak, and shot through with longing and loneliness. The comparison with Midsummer Moon is coming from Kinsale herself, and although Lessons in French does indeed have what Kinsale terms "hedgehog humor" here and there, the fact that Hubert is in fact a huge lumbering bull, rather than a little spikey hedgehog, has symbolic relevance to the book's feel. The humor is there in the characters' banter with each other, but it's doesn't inflect the overall feel of the book itself. The underlying emotion of the book is melancholy – nostalgia for a lost time and place that wasn't all that great to begin with, regret for lost innocence that wasn't all that innocent anyway, yearning for a companion without being sure that someone to share things with would actually solve anything.
I agree, Joan, and this issue has me reflecting on the whole idea of Callie as an "anti-kick ass heroine,' which I've seen around, too. I don't, actually, like to think of Callie in those terms, because the quality in her that seems so prominent is the way she copes and endures the powerful losses she's suffered, the way she remains optimistic and good-hearted.
On the one hand there is the way she uses her daydreaming as a substitute for what she cannot openly wish for:
It seemed worse than a disgrace now, it seemed a betrayal to be here with Trev, to want him beyond anything else, and yet be entertaining a proposal from another man. But it was not as if Trev had asked for her hand. Indeed, he said he was going away back to France. And he had said nothing to suggest that he desired to wed her and take her home to his estates. She might indulge in a great number of fantastical daydreams, but that was one fantasy that she ruthlessly denied to herself.
. . .
Callie tried to make a daydream for herself. It was what she always did when she could not quite bear what was real. She was, as most of those who knew her had informed her with some exasperation at one time or another, quite capable of becoming so lost in her thoughts that she did not hear any words spoken to her. But this time she could find no way to lose herself in any reverie-‘or delusion, as they all seemed.
And then there is the way the unfolding of the story finds her in a very real adventure, one that makes her unable to use her old coping mechanism and immersed in a reality that exceeds both the fear and joy of her daydreams. In any case, the happiness is suffused with loss and the tragedy is infused with comedy, such that in my opinion they are really inseparable.
I think that's why I found the first love scene so powerful; it's like Trev is bringing Callie fully into the present, fully into herself, fully into her awareness of both of them as a couple. at least in that moment:
He held himself over her, his mouth hovering just above hers. "You want it all?" he breathed. He felt wild now, unreasonable. "You want me?"
She made a faint nod in the darkness. He wanted her with a need that had the blood hammering in his veins. He felt her lips part. Her body was delicate and soft beneath him, freed of all the petticoats and corsets and limits….
He turned his head down and kissed her temple, holding himself still inside her. He wanted to move so badly that he was shaking, but he waited in exquisite torment. "Je t'adore," he whispered. "Je t'aime. Do you want me?"
Her tension softened. Her hands opened across his back. "Oh yes," she breathed.
He pressed into her. She whimpered, but it was a sweet passionate sound, frantic, her body closing and squeezing around him.
"Do you want me?" He drew back slowly, torturing himself.
"Yes." She arched up, taking him deep as he pressed again. A moan escaped her.
Trev arched his head back, his eyes closed. "You want me?"
Because this is a Romance, of course, this uncomplicated space cannot last. But I think it's those moments in the text where we get the emotional payoff for enduring all the yearning and longing and loss we readers experience on behalf of the characters.
Which is not to say that Callie and Trev aren't as fully realized as any of Kinsale's other heroes and heroines. They are and both are delicious. And if this were a character-driven book, it would be truly, deeply, wonderful. But Kinsale's weak point has ever been plotting and the raft-load of coincidences, machinations, and deus ex machina that brings together the loose ends begs a little more suspension of disbelief than I'm willing to grant.
You know, I really felt that the plotting of Lessons in French was much tighter than in previous novels, especially books like My Sweet Folly and Seize the Fire, both of which I felt echoing faintly through this book. But perhaps because of that, it felt that there were too many coincidences that acted in concert to facilitate the ending of the book. A figure from Trevor's past shows up just at the right time; Hermione's new fiancé proves useful in exactly the right way at the right moment; an old suitor of Callie's returns to catalyze a whole series of revelations and connections previously unknown, etc. And while I appreciated one very clever turn related to Callie's three failed engagements, even that felt a bit contrived, as you suggest in the deux ex machina mention.
I'm usually willing to tolerate some deux ex machina results in farce, but this novel was so much more than that, I agree with you that it undermined the strong character-driven elements of the novel.
I was also impatient with the pacing of the revelations. It took me a while to get into the book. I know stuff is hidden, especially about Trev's life, but it took too long for the reader figure out what was going on. Once I was let in on the book's secrets, it was a much quicker, more engaging read.
Me, too! The first time I read the book, I really had to work to get through the first hundred pages. It felt slow, even lazy, much like Hubert! Now the second time I read it, these pages went much more quickly, probably because I already knew how things unfolded and could pick out all the hidden clues and half-expressed significances.
Re-reading what I wrote above, it seems harsh. Any other book with these issues would get a C rating. But this is still the incomparable Laura Kinsale, who can write a book in Middle English and get people not only to understand but also to adore it, who can write about sadomasochism in Renaissance Italy and win a freaking RITA. Lessons in French is a tour de force that in any other author would have us singing to the skies with praise and wonder. But this is the first Laura Kinsale book in five years and had incredibly high expectations. So, while it’s not her personal best, IMO, it's still stunning and amazing and brilliant.
There is must so much I love about this book. I love that it's a pastoral; I love Callie's affection for Hubert and the fact that she feeds him Bath buns (this may be partially because I love Bath ;D); I love Callie's agricultural ambitions and her canny understanding of the social dynamics she must negotiate; I love Trev's romanticism, and I swooned at the very impassioned speech he delivers to Callie when she tries to insist for like the hundredth time that they are merely friends; I love the care that's obvious in drawing the picture of this not quite idyllic story-scape. And I think the novel deftly balances the tragic with the comic in a way that does not erase the tragic but still allows us to celebrate Callie and Trev's ultimate happiness. While Lessons in French is not my favorite Kinsale, its poignancy has stayed with me ever since I read it, making it a strong B+ for me, too.
-Joan/Sarah F. and Janet
FTC disclosure: This book was provided to the reviewer by either the author or publisher. The reviewer did not pay for this book but received it free.