REVIEW: The Accidental Countess by Michelle Willingham
Dear Ms. Willingham,
I haven’t always had the best of luck with the Harlequin Historical line, but always being in the lookout for new historical authors, I decided to give The Accidental Countess a try. I wish I could say that my experience was a resounding success, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. While I found the writing smooth, the characterization was flat and inconsistent (at times the hero and heroine behaved in wildly contradictory ways in order to further the plot) and the story uninvolving. Great prose can make up for a messy plot, for me, but simply decent prose can’t make up for lackluster characterization and plotting.
The story begins with Stephen Chesterfield, the Earl of Whitmore awakening in his country home, bruised and beaten and with no memory of how he came to be so. In fact, he cannot remember the previous several months of his life, months in which he apparently married his childhood friend and neighbor Emily, disappeared about a week after the wedding, acquired a mysterious tattoo on his neck and a nasty knife scar on his torso and got the crap beat out of him.
Emily is disappointed, to say the least, that Stephen remembers nothing of their marriage. She was already extremely disappointed in him, given that he disappeared shortly after their wedding, failed in his promise to protect her brother (who has been murdered) and apparently visited his mistress in London shortly before his disappearance.
Emily’s life has been a difficult one – her mother died early, and her father was something of a wastrel. Her childhood friendship with Stephen was one of the bright spots in her life, a life that has become even harder recently. Her whirlwind courtship with Stephen and brief marriage made her happy; not only did she fancy herself in love, but her marriage has taken her away from the decrepit ruin of a family home that she lived in. Since her brother’s death, she has inherited the care of his two young children, and if Stephen renounces their marriage, she doesn’t know how she and the children will survive.
I had a lot of problems with the plotting of The Accidental Countess – it felt haphazard to me. Plot points are built up only to have the resolution fizzle. For instance, Emily reflects portentously several times on an unspecified scandal related to the death of her father, which she feels is at least one of the roadblocks to her appearing in polite society. But the revelation that her father committed suicide because he was financially ruined feels anticlimatic, and seems mostly to serve as an excuse to have Stephen feel sorry for Emily and have the reader admire how plucky and long-suffering Emily is. I was unclear on when the suicide had even occurred; Stephen didn’t know about it but I couldn’t figure out if that was because of the amnesia or because it had happened after he disappeared. I’m guessing it’s the latter because there’s no mention of Emily being responsible for her niece and nephew when they married (though really, I was unclear that plot point as well).
Really, the whole resolution of the amnesia plotline felt similarly vague – there was no “aha!” moment where Stephen remembered everything. I suppose one could argue that’s more realistic, but amnesia is inherently unrealistic as presented in movies, television and books, and if I’m going to read an unrealistic and somewhat cheesy plot element, I at least want it to pay off in a dramatically satisfying way. A lot of the backstory simply has to be inferred. For instance, Stephen’s original reasons for the marriage are implied but never spelled out. I think some flashbacks from Stephen’s perspective (once he did remember) would’ve have really helped tighten and clarify the story.
One of my main issues with The Accidental Countess was that Stephen and Emily are constantly at odds, and their positions on various issues flip-flop willy-nilly. He wants her to come to London with him, but she doesn’t want to go. Later, he doesn’t want her there, arguing that she’s safer on his isolated estate (where she’s already been attacked once; his position made no sense to me) while she’s determined to follow him to London. He wants her to appear in society with him (even though he’s not sure he wants to stay married to her), but she’s terrified of being snubbed and refuses. Later, she insists on attending balls; now, he doesn’t want her to (again, supposed safety concerns; these felt particularly manufactured). I ended up with the sense that all of these conflicts were simply set up to keep Stephen and Emily at odds until the end.
Also, the “will they or won’t they?” tension regarding the consummation of Stephen and Emily’s attraction got very tiresome, very quickly. I can’t count the number of aborted seductions that occurred before they finally got onto it. Their marriage had already been consummated, actually, but Stephen doesn’t remember it of course, and it takes place pretty much off-stage except for a few recollections from Emily’s perspective, which I thought was an odd storytelling choice.
The mystery – who killed Emily’s brother and attacked Stephen, and the meaning behind Stephen’s mysterious tattoo – both confused and bored me. The resolution – involving damning evidence against the villains left in an unlikely hiding place – had me rolling my eyes.
Ultimately, I found The Accidental Countess to be very average; the flaws I have enumerated were not enough to tip the book over into “truly bad” territory for me, but neither were its scant virtues enough for me to grade it higher. For that reason I am giving it an average grade: C.