Have you ever really wanted to like something, only to have an onslaught of evidence slowly chip away at your feelings until you have to accept that you can’t like it? That’s how I felt with Governess Gone Rogue.
Amanda Leighton and Jamie St. Clair, the Earl of Kenyon, are both desperate. Amanda is a well-educated woman in need of a position (ideally as a governess) after she unwisely had an affair while working at a finishing school, and was very publicly exposed. The resultant scandal has made her unemployable. Jamie is a widower whose twin sons have managed to scare off every nanny who’s come their way. He’s decided they’re in need of a tutor; a strong determined man who will help them learn discipline. When Amanda (unnoticed by Jamie), overhears him complaining about his predicament in the office of a newspaper where she’s about to place an ad, she decides to take a risk and shows up to interview for the tutor position, dressed as a man. Or rather, dressed as a seventeen-year-old boy, since her feminine features can’t pass as an older man.
Even in his desperation, Jamie shows some sense and is hesitant to hire some untried boy to handle his sons. He moves forward with his plan to hire the most conventional and respectable of the candidates, which is certainly not Amanda (or Adam Seton, as she is known to Jamie).
Naturally, the boys run off this tutor almost immediately, while at the same time Jamie is called out of the city for political reasons. With his household falling apart at the thought of the staff having to – again - take primary care of the children, Jamie thinks back to his youngest interviewee, Adam, who seemed to make a real connection with the boys. He impulsively chooses to hire Adam to fill the position while he’s away.
What follows is the classically amusing trope of a determined governess (or tutor) asserting her authority over mischievous children. Amanda puts up with all sorts of pranks, including a bucket of water on her head, slugs in her bed, and even an afternoon spent tied to a chair. Through it all she does her best to stay calm and slowly gains the boys’ respect.
Jamie, too, is impressed by her ability to capture his sons’ attention and help them learn. He rushed back to London shortly after arriving in the country, suddenly hit by the realization that he’d handed the care of his children to a virtual stranger. Obviously, he returned to find the boys safe and sound, but I liked him better for that moment of paternal fear. It’s extremely difficult to be a single parent, and Ms. Guhrke does a good job - in this instance and throughout the book - of showing that struggle even in a historical setting.
While I fully enjoyed everything through the first half of the book, the second half was problematic.
I have a love-hate relationship with cross-dressing romances. On the one hand, I take a certain delight in a successful deception adding excitement to the story. The flip side of this, though, is the deceived party’s attraction to the cross-dresser. It can ring false or feel silly to have a hero thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m not homosexual, but I’m feeling a strong pull toward this man…’ or to have them suddenly inflamed by desire once they realize the heroine is a woman. In this case, Jamie becomes aroused by Amanda’s nearness one evening, which spurs him to look closer at her and realize - gasp! - that she’s a woman.
This is where things begin to get messy as well as awkward. Jamie’s instinctive response (other than desire, apparently) is to fire Amanda for her deception. But then his sons and servants are so plaintive that he agrees to hire her back, still in the guise of Adam Seton, tutor. They then end up in bed together, which becomes a problem once Amanda’s identity is discovered and threatened to be exposed by an enemy. The house of cards they’ve built with multiple layers of deception comes crashing down as they face the reality that even Amanda’s presence in the house could taint the whole family with her scandal. Yet Jamie loves her now, so he doesn’t want to give her up.
Since we’re all aware this is a romance novel with a mandatory happily-ever-after, I don’t feel I’ll be shocking anyone to reveal that Jamie and his sons make a group decision to keep Amanda. They show up at her flat in a big romantic gesture and vow they don’t care about any of the consequences - Amanda is part of the family and must stay with them. And after much sobbing and rejoicing, they all four walk into the sunset together.
It's lovely… and completely dissatisfying. After all this time of building up the problem of Amanda’s bad reputation, or her outrageous decision to masquerade as a man, she never faces any real consequences. Jamie is easily persuaded to keep her on after discovering her lie, and then everyone decides to just ignore the repercussions of Amanda becoming an official member of the family. While I love the thought of characters choosing to be together in the face of adversity, there needs to be a deeper discussion about the realities of living with that choice. They can’t just say, ‘To heck with it, let’s just get married anyway!’ after so much hype about the problems separating them.
Although I had mixed feelings for Amanda, Jamie, and their romance plotline, the two characters whom I purely enjoyed were Jamie’s twin sons, Colin and Owen. They certainly fit the stereotypes of mischievous romance novel children - kids with hearts of gold who are only difficult because they’re in need of more attentive parenting, which their new step-parent can provide. But underneath that veneer I found I really enjoyed and related to their twin dynamic. They act in unison but still have different personalities. Owen is more studious and easily trusting, while Colin is the troublemaker who feels their father’s absence more keenly and works hard to hide that vulnerability. Some of these traits echo what I see in a pair of twins I know personally, making me appreciate the boys’ characters more.
Governess Gone Rogue is a funny and imperfect book which, as mentioned above, glosses over issues rather than resolves them. If that makes it sound like I'm damning the book with faint praise, it's because I am. Fans of Ms. Guhrke, such as myself, who have read classics like And Then He Kissed Her or The Marriage Bed know she's capable of a more thought provoking or emotionally engaging book than what they will find here. This book, while amusing and entertaining, never quite rises to its potential. Hopefully, the author's next work will achieve her usual standard of excellence.
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