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REVIEW: The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

Dear Ms. Noble,

A few friends of mine have been recommending your books to me for a while now, and so this summer I got The Game and the Governess.

The-Game-and-the-GovernessThe novel begins in 1817, at Mrs. Beveridge’s School in Surrey. Phoebe Baker, a young lady educated at the school, became a charity pupil when her father’s fortune was stolen by his secretary, Mr. Sharp. Now the school term is coming to a close and eighteen year old Phoebe, whose father died shortly after losing the money, must make her own way in the world.

Phoebe writes an angry letter to the man she blames for her misfortune, the Earl of Ashby. The earl once employed Mr. Sharp, the same secretary her father later hired. Lord Ashby knew Mr. Sharp’s character, since he too was one of Sharp’s victims, but chose not to bring Sharp to justice, in order to protect himself from becoming a laughingstock.

In her letter, Phoebe tells the earl that she holds him responsible for what befell her, and that if they ever meet, she will make him pay—not out of malice, but for justice.

Five years pass, and the next scene introduces Ned Granville, the earl. After being swindled by Sharp, Ned hired his good army friend John Turner to act as his secretary. John took the position on a temporary basis, intending to save the money needed to restore his family’s mill, but disasters struck and prolonged his service to Ned, and Ned, who doesn’t understand John’s desire to be his own man, will not loan him the money needed to fix up the mill.

One night, while Ned, John and a third army friend, Dr. Rhys Gray, are playing cards, “Lucky Ned” has a winning streak. A debate begins between Ned and John as to the nature of Ned’s good fortune, both with the ladies and otherwise. John deems it a direct result of Ned’s position as an earl.

The argument turns into a wager. John and Ned agree to trade places while on a trip to Leicestershire, where Ned must go to decide whether to sell his deceased mother’s house. While staying at a nearby estate owned by Sir Nathan Widcoate and his wife, Lady Widcoate, Ned will take on the role of the earl’s secretary and John the role of the earl.

If Ned can, while working in John’s position, successfully win a dance in public, a token of affection, and intimate knowledge from a lady, he will win the wager and with it, John’s mill. If he cannot, John will win five thousand pounds, enough money with which to fix the mill and quit the position of secretary. Neither man realizes Phoebe Baker is the Widcoates’ governess.

At the Widcoates’, Ned slowly catches on to the fact that a secretary is treated far less deferentially than an earl, and although the house is full of young female guests, all of them have set their caps for John.

Deprived of the privileges he takes for granted and rebuffed at every turn, Ned finally, when he learns the Widcoates’ young governess was brought up as a lady, sees his chance. He and the governess alone are housed in cramped rooms on the third floor, so he has ample opportunity to get to know her.

In the five years since she left Mrs. Beveridge’s School, Phoebe has learned to find the good in the world. Despite a position that requires her never to smile in public, Phoebe finds at least one absurdity in each day—something to laugh over, if only in private.

Phoebe loves the children she teaches, but realizes someday soon they will be too old to need a governess. She has been saving her money to purchase a ticket aboard a ship that will take her to her relatives in America and away from the exacting standards of her employers.

Years ago Phoebe gave up her vengeful plans for the Earl of Ashby, but his presence at her place of employment upsets her. Her feelings of uneasiness don’t extend to the earl’s oddly-behaved “secretary,” at least, not until he tries to steal a kiss.

Ned’s apology the next day is sincere and accompanied by a huge favor, and as she begins to become better acquainted with him, Phoebe realizes she is in danger of losing her heart—and possibly her position.

Will Ned win his wager with John? Will his eyes be opened and will he realize what a snotty jerk he has been? Will he realize his growing feelings for Phoebe have little to do with the wager? And what will happen when Phoebe discovers that he is the man she holds responsible for her own change in position?

In case it isn’t clear from the plot summary above, Ned begins the book as a spoiled, over-privileged ass with a sense of entitlement. He has a steep learning curve ahead of him and at first I found him hard to read about.

I kept reading not because I liked anything about him right away, but because I felt the narrative was conscious of his arrogant sense of entitlement and was heading for an interrogation of privilege, while Ned himself was heading for a rude awakening. Happily, this turned out to be the case.

Ned’s arrogance was not of the overbearing, dictatorial variety, but rather that of a jovial aristocrat blinded by his own privileged position and blithely unaware of the full effects of his actions on others.

Thus, when Ned arrives at the Widcoates’ estate and begins to get his comeuppance, it takes him a while to realize that the women in the household aren’t interested in his attentions. When he tries to play footsie with one guest and later to kiss Phoebe, he gets a couple of magnificent setdowns and one person goes even further to “put him in his place.”

Eventually the ugly truth does begin to penetrate Ned’s thick skull, and slowly he loses his sense of entitlement and most (but not all) of his arrogance. He also learns to enjoy working for what he wants, and to feel empathy and appreciation for people not of his status. This transformation is at times subtle, but it’s there, and while I didn’t fall in love with Ned at any point, I greatly enjoyed watching him grow as a human being.

Phoebe is another story, in the sense that I loved her almost from the moment she reappeared in the book five years after being dispossessed. As a governess, she is neither a servant nor a lady of the house, and is therefore isolated and vulnerable.

Her intelligence and her empathy are both in evidence, and as she slowly begins to trust Ned, I became invested in the relationship and in my hope that he would treat her as she deserved, not just as an object for his wager with John.

It was a joy to see Phoebe bloom from the unsmiling governess into someone who could joke with another human being, confide in him, and come to trust him. But even while it was a joy, I was in suspense the whole time to see if Ned would prove worthy of her trust.

Phoebe and Ned both have affecting backstories. I won’t reveal them here, but Ned’s helped me understand and even sympathize with him, while Phoebe’s broke my heart. I waited with bated breath to see what would happen once Phoebe learned the truth of Ned’s identity, and I appreciated the exquisite suspense with which this was drawn out.

Another thing I enjoyed a great deal was that Ned and Phoebe weren’t immediately attracted to each other. Instead being gripped with instalust, the characters slowly become acquainted, which imbued the moments of physical intimacy with romance. That holds true of all but a sex scene that comes late in the book and feels shoehorned into the story.

The prose style was enjoyable as well. It has an elegant simplicity punctuated by humorous moments, such as Ned’s insistence on responding to everything—even setbacks—with the utterance “Brilliant! Marvelous!” which takes on a delicious irony when he doesn’t mean it in the least. I even liked the chapter headings, which read like something from the rulebook for a betting game, titles like “The first hand is played.” And “Sometimes, even a novice player has to wager everything.”

The book was heading for keeper status, but then came the final 15% of the novel, the first part of which contained elements that felt like they belong in a book from another genre.

Spoiler: Show

The story briefly devolves into a different game – one of “Was it Colonel Mustard in the living room with the wrench?”

Once that’s over, there isn’t enough page space left to let the fallout from Edward’s deception play out fully, so we get a rushed and not entirely satisfying resolution.

Still, I was glad to read a book which does not treat all aristocrats as noble-hearted hero material and plays out on one level like a courtship between a governess and a secretary, where—equally refreshing—the main characters don’t ogle each other’s body parts or get hard and wet before they know each other. For its thoughtful sensibility, The Game and the Governess gets a B.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

9 Comments

  1. Jorrie Spencer
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 13:31:45

    What a wonderful review. I’m going to have to try this one. I love the idea of the hero’s character being strongly formed by his privilege and watching that play out as he grows to understand himself in the world better.

    The review was also kind of fun to read because I thought: the earl is the hero; oh, no, John is the hero; oh, nope, the earl is the hero :)

  2. Janine
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 13:42:13

    @Jorrie Spencer: Thanks Jorrie!

    I love the idea of the hero’s character being strongly formed by his privilege and watching that play out as he grows to understand himself in the world better.

    Though I would have liked even more of the latter, that was one of my favorite things about the book. I hope you enjoy it!

    The review was also kind of fun to read because I thought: the earl is the hero; oh, no, John is the hero; oh, nope, the earl is the hero :)

    LOL! I’m pretty sure the next book will be about John. He’s going to need some redeeming too though.

  3. Kaetrin
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 21:24:08

    I had almost completely the opposite reaction to you Janine. Which just goes to show that one person’s good book is another’s wallbanger I guess.

    behold: my rant

    I never felt that Ned and Turner were actually friends – I was told they were but what was shown didn’t seem very friendly to me. I always thought Turner despised Ned actually. When Turner tells the story of their involvement in Waterloo it didn’t sound like he was talking about a friend.

    Ned was careless and thoughtless and I didn’t think it fit well with his early upbringing which I expected to have had a stronger influence on him. He was raised by his mother untiil he was 12 after all and she wasn’t very wealthy. He knows what it’s like to not have servants and to have to do for himself and surely he would have had to have done so in the army as well? I can’t imagine that conditions at Waterloo were great. His reaction to dirty bathwater didn’t seem congruous with that.

    Both of them lied to innocent people for no good reason and they didn’t seem to pay any attention to the hurt they were causing and did cause. The only “hurt” which was even attempted to be remedied in the story was Phoebe’s – the other people at Hollyhock and Puffington Arms who had been lied to and humiliated just disappeared from the story as if their feelings mattered not at all.

    Ned didn’t feel any guilt for his actions with Phoebe until very, very late in the piece and the small grovel he did was nowhere near good enough for me. I didn’t like him from the start and I never warmed to him.

    I didn’t think much of Turner either. He tried to sabotage Ned and his actions at the Summer Festival with Letitia were selfish and uncaring of the damage it would cause her reputation.

    Both Ned and Turner were too busy thinking of themselves the whole time, they hardly stopped to think of anyone else. One thing the book did really well was convince me just how precarious Phoebe’s position was – in terms of her job and her reputation. I suspect Letitia’s position wasn’t all that much better.

    I have liked Noble’s books before and I will definitely read her again. She’s a good writer – my problems were all with the story. For me, there just wasn’t any good way to drag it out of the ditch. Ned and Turner just made me angry. I did like Phoebe and Letitia very much and they deserved much better from men who purported to love them.

    /rant

  4. Janine
    Aug 20, 2014 @ 23:51:06

    @Kaetrin:

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    I agree completely that the friendship between Ned and John was much more in Ned’s mind than in reality. But I actually liked that a lot because I felt that it served to illustrate the way Ned’s privileged position poisoned the relationship and also the way Ned’s privilege allowed him to blind himself to that reality. He could tell himself and others that he and John were friends if he wanted to and John couldn’t gainsay him.

    I also agree John was an ass– he clearly had tunnel vision when it came to (A) teaching Ned a well-deserved lesson and (B) saving his family mill, and he did some unsavory things in service of those goals. I expect we’ll learn more about that in John and Letitia’s book and I think we’ll see John make it up to Letitia then. In other words, since the trilogy isn’t finished, I’m willing to be patient on that score.

    You make a good point about Ned’s childhood and I would have loved for that to be explored more– I think that would have gone a long way toward taking this book from good to excellent. But even without having that exploration, I got the feeling that Ned was running away from his past, running away from thinking about his mother in particular, and about what becoming the old earl’s heir had robbed him of, and that was part of why he immersed himself so deeply in the role of earl and blinded himself to a lot of truths.

    Regarding the hurt to people other than Phoebe and Letitia, both in Puffington Arms and in Hollyhock, we don’t know that that wasn’t remedied. It wasn’t stated that it was or that it wasn’t one way or another, so I guess we’ll find out in the next book whether there was an apology from Ned and/or John or not. I tend to think Ned at least apologized even if we didn’t see it on page.

    I didn’t love Ned but I ultimately came to like him. I felt his growth was subtle but there, and in some ways I appreciate that it wasn’t a total turnaround because I’m not sure I could have bought that. But then I have a love of flawed characters and I also wish more aristocrats in the genre were portrayed as blinded by privilege.

    I agree 100% that the ending was rushed and I wish the fallout from the deception had been given more room to play out. I said as much in my review.

  5. SonomaLass
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 00:58:32

    I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading this, but I do like the idea of an aristocrat who isn’t instantly perceived by all around him as “special” when he’s disguised as a non-aristo. Usually such disguise plots serve to underscore the idea that members of the nobility are innately superior, which bugs me.

  6. Jorrie Spencer
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 08:11:30

    Squinting past all the spoilers which I will come back to read someday, I just wanted to say I so agree with you, SonomaLass!

  7. Janine
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 20:49:41

    @SonomaLass: I hadn’t thought of it in those terms but that’s a good point.

  8. Kaetrin
    Aug 21, 2014 @ 21:40:24

    @Janine:

    Regarding the hurt to people other than Phoebe and Letitia, both in Puffington Arms and in Hollyhock, we don’t know that that wasn’t remedied. It wasn’t stated that it was or that it wasn’t one way or another, so I guess we’ll find out in the next book whether there was an apology from Ned and/or John or not. I tend to think Ned at least apologized even if we didn’t see it on page.

    I am more literal than you are Janine I think. I tend towards the “if it’s not on the page it didn’t happen” view. Maybe it will be addressed in a future book but that won’t serve to make this book satisfying to me. And there was nothing in this book which suggested Ned gave any thought at all to the effect of the deception on the people of Hollyhock or Puffington Arms.

    Frankly, I’m not super inclined to read on because I just didn’t like the heroes very much. I did like Letitia and maybe (big maybe), if she makes Turner grovel for the entire book I could possibly enjoy it, but right now, I’m not interested in whether he turns things around or not.

  9. Janine
    Aug 22, 2014 @ 13:32:33

    @Kaetrin:

    I am more literal than you are Janine I think. I tend towards the “if it’s not on the page it didn’t happen” view. Maybe it will be addressed in a future book but that won’t serve to make this book satisfying to me.

    Those are good points. I think I allow for things to happen off page partly because I’m a writer and I’ve sometimes experienced a situation where I have to cut a detail I’d love to keep for reasons having to do with the pacing of the main romance — often so as not to slow down its momentum.

    In this case, with The Game and the Governess, there was also a time gash between the scene in which Ned’s identity is revealed to all those people, and the following scene. To me that doesn’t suggest an apology but (since we don’t see Ned departing the area immediately after the reveal) it also doesn’t rule one out.

    And there was nothing in this book which suggested Ned gave any thought at all to the effect of the deception on the people of Hollyhock or Puffington Arms.

    The only thing that suggests one to me is Ned’s growth over the course of the story. But since we disagree on that, I understand why you don’t see it that way.

    I didn’t like John either so other than Letitia the only thing that makes me want to read The Lie and the Lady is to see if Noble can show his character maturing some the way she did with Ned. But again, since the growth in Ned didn’t work for you, I get where you’re coming from regarding the second book.

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