Mistaken for a Lady
I used to read a lot of medieval romances, but haven’t picked up so many lately, which is one of the reasons I decided to read Carol Townend’s Mistaken for a Lady the fifth book in her ongoing Knights of Champagne series. Another is that it’s set in and around Brittany and I’m a sucker for stories set in France. It’s a decent read, but feels at times as though it’s romance-by-numbers; we’ve got a couple estranged by circumstances, a heroine who is insecure and doesn’t know where she stands, a hero who is used to bottling things up and keeping secrets (one of which is a doozy) and a villain who goes through the motions of being villainous but who never comes across as particularly clever or menacing – and ultimately I felt as though I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces didn’t quite fit neatly together.
Around a year or so after her marriage to the handsome, gallant Comte Tristan des Iles, his young wife Francesca finds herself left to her own devices when her husband is called to the service of the Countess of Brittany. These are troubled times for the duchy, which is under threat from both France and England (Brittany was an independent state until the middle of the sixteenth century), and as one of its premier knights, Tristan is needed to play a key role in subduing a rebellion and then helping to keep the peace.
But a planned absence of a month or two stretches into two years. Tristan is sent to England on a mission and when he returns, court politics continue to keep him away from home. During that time, Francesca, who had believed herself to be the daughter of the Count of Fontaine suddenly discovers she is not (I am guessing that this happened in Unveiling Lady Clare, the second book in the series), and that not only is she not nobly born, but she is likely illegitimate, too. While Lady Clare treats Francesca with courtesy and kindness, Francesca is horrified at the thought that she has married Tristan under false pretences, and leaves Fontaine because she feels it inappropriate to remain there. When, during the period of Tristan’s absence, he fails to answer any of her letters, she becomes more and more convinced that he regrets their marriage and will want it annulled.
When Tristan is finally able to return to Francesca, it is to deliver the sad news that the man she regarded as her father is on his deathbed and has been asking to see her. Tristan is annoyed, to say the least, that his wife is no longer residing at Fontaine and believes the fact that she has abandoned their home there indicates that she must have decided that their marriage is over.
Around the first third of the book is basically each of them thinking that the other wants an annulment but not directly saying so. I can understand that not having seen or communicated with each other for two years is partly to blame, and the fact that they didn’t really know each other all that well before Tristan left (in spite of having been married for more than a year) won’t have helped, but I can’t deny that the continual repetition of their assumptions as to what what he/she must have been thinking without either of them actually voicing those thoughts was frustrating.
Fortunately, however, once they embark on their journey back to Brittany things improve, and Francesca and Tristan begin to actually talk to each other. They find out that the other did not receive any of the letters they each sent, and Francesca broaches the subject of her newly discovered lack of nobility (and dowry) and posits the idea that Tristan must surely now want a wife who can bring something to their marriage more than just herself and an uncertain lineage. But Tristan insists he doesn’t want another wife and is more than a little surprised at the strength of his desire to keep Francesca with him.
Francesca, however, remains doubtful. She has realised that she is a different person to the naïve girl Tristan married and that if they are to make a life together, then things are going to have to be different to before. Tristan is a man used to command and to keeping his own counsel; and she realises that if there is no trust between them, then their mutual attraction and delight in their physical relationship will not be enough to sustain a marriage.
Early on in their journey, Tristan notices that their small party is being followed. He suspects he knows by whom, but not why; he takes on some extra guards for the rest of the way and they eventually arrive safely at the Castle des Iles, where a whole new set of challenges are going to face him and Francesca as they try to repair their relationship.
As I said at the beginning of the review, there are interesting elements to this tale, but the book as a whole doesn’t quite hang together, and I struggled to maintain my interest in it. While I liked the setting and am usually a fan of second-chance romances, a lot of the uncertainty around the central relationship here feels overly drawn-out and the journey towards the HEA just isn’t compelling. The villain is introduced early on and makes appearances here and there throughout, but never feels integral to the story; and while there is some interesting historical detail, most of it is given in obvious info-dumps and “as-you-know-Bob” conversations. I liked the fact that Francesca recognised things between her and Tristan needed to change and that he was keeping secrets that perhaps he needed to talk about, but didn’t like her method of drawing him out, which was to keep poking and prodding him in a most unsubtle manner. However, my biggest problem with the book is that neither of the protagonists is particularly interesting or engaging and there is no real spark between them. I can forgive much in a romance in terms of the plot if the characters pull me in and the chemistry is there, but sadly, neither of those things is the case here.
I’m not averse to trying more books by this author, but unfortunately can’t really recommend this one.