REVIEW: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale
I’ve been rereading and reviewing all of Laura Kinsale’s romances since 2016 – this is number ten (of 12) on my reread list. (I’ve been saving For My Lady’s Heart and its sequel Shadowheart for last, for reasons that probably only make sense to me.)
This is Kinsale’s last book, in that she hasn’t published any since Lessons in French came out in 2010. I wonder if she ever will again?
Since, by my Kinsale reread standards, this is a relatively recent reread, you would think that I’d remember it better than, say, The Shadow and the Star, which I first read in the 1990s. Alas, that’s not the case. On the upside, not remembering the book means that in a way it was a fresh read for me. On the downside, it suggests that Lessons in French was not that memorable the first time around (at least compared to other Kinsales).
My memory of the book was somewhat refreshed by reading the blurb, but most of the details of the plot were new to me (again, I guess). It opens:
Lady Callista Taillefaire was a gifted wallflower. By the age of seven and twenty, she had perfected the art of blending into the wallpaper and woodwork so well that she never had to dance and only her most intimate friends greeted her. She could sit against the pink damask in the ballroom or sit against the green silk in the refreshment chamber. She didn’t even have to match to be overlooked.
Callie finds this ability tested one night when at the village assembly, Trevelyn d’Augustin appears. Trev was Callie’s friend, partner in crime, and secret amour when the two were teenagers. When Callie’s father caught them on the verge of being in flagrante delicto, he whipped Trev across the face, causing a scar, and banished him from ever seeing Callie again. Trev went away for nine long years, and now he’s finally returned, compelled by his beloved mother’s ill health.
Trev is flabbergasted to discover that Callie hasn’t married in his absence; in fact, she is somewhat notorious for having been engaged three times, and then jilted three times. The attraction between them is still there, but there are any number of barriers (some of them tiresome to me) that stand in the way of a happy ending.
Since Callie’s father died, she and her younger sister have lived in the family home with her cousin, who inherited the title, and his wife, who makes it clear that she’d be happy if the sisters were off her hands. Callie’s younger sister is now engaged, and Callie is hoping that there will be a home with her and her new husband, but even that is not precisely a happy ending for her. For one thing, her brother-in-law-to-be is based in London, and Callie is firmly a country girl, absorbed with her animals. Chief among these is her beloved bull, Hubert, whom she is planning to take to a nearby fair soon.
Trev is technically the Duc de Monceaux, but since the French Revolution, his family chateau and fortune were forfeit, and the family fled to England. There, his grandfather died (not much lamented by Trev) and then his sisters. His mother is alone in the world and appears to be dying of consumption (maybe? It wasn’t totally clear but it seemed like consumption). Callie has been a friend and caretaker to her, and through her has heard that when Trev left Shelford, he returned to France and was able to get the family estate restored to him.
This is not actually true – Trev has money, but it’s from various unsavory activities like fixing boxing matches, both in France and England. He also has a price on his head, for a crime that he didn’t commit.
Things get even more complicated, when Callie’s cousin, who technically owns Hubert, rashly gambles him away. He is penitent, but there’s nothing he can do, and Callie is devastated. Trev arranges to have an associate (Trev has various ex-boxers who hang around him and do his bidding) offer whatever money it takes to buy Hubert back from his new owner. Wires are crossed, or perhaps (more likely) Trev doesn’t hang around with the most ethical of companions. The end result is that Hubert is stolen.
Hijinks ensue – Trev and Callie are left in the position of having to try to hide a very big, very loud bull while trying to figure out how to return him to his rightful owner without being accused of theft. They end up planning a caper (teenage Trev was big on capers, and often brought the more sedate Callie along for the ride) – “one last adventure.”
Meanwhile, another possible obstacle to the HEA comes in the form of Major Sturgeon – Callie’s first jilt, and someone who has a history with Trev as well. He has come to Shelford with every apparent intention of trying to woo Callie again. Trev is enraged, but Callie finds herself considering his suit. She feels marriage, even a loveless one, is her only option at this point.
Which gets to the heart of one of my main issues of Lessons in French – there just weren’t that many genuine obstacles to Trev and Callie’s HEA. He thinks that because he’s a wanted man and should really leave England as soon as possible, he can’t offer her much in life. But he has money, enough to settle them in America or somewhere else. He muses about this, but then falls back on thinking about how he’s a rogue and not good enough for her.
Callie’s hesitations are even more aggravating – they boil down to feeling dull and unattractive, in comparison to the handsome, dashing Trev. But he makes it clear, on many occasions, that the adores and values her. I get that insecurity is a bitch, but there are just too many moments where she assumes he’s offering for her out of a sense of obligation (okay, it’s only a couple of times, but even that was too many).
This is where I may be comparing this unfairly against other Kinsale books, where there were deep, angst-ridden obstacles to an HEA. Kinsale apparently intended for Lessons in French to be somewhat lighter, and while the prose is still sparkling, the lack of real conflict was missed. I did appreciate the humor, and Hubert was an admirable animal mascot, but ultimately my grade for Lessons in French is a somewhat tepid B.