Rules of Attraction
Grade : A

Reviewer’s Note: The first chapter of this book builds up to an early surprise some might consider to be a spoiler. If Dodd’s previous work and my word are enough: this is a good book. If not, read on at your own risk, but don’t say you weren’t warned.

Calling all Gothic fans - the last installment in the Governess Bride series is just the ticket for a dark and stormy night. Author Christina Dodd lovingly reinterprets all of the classic Gothic tropes for the modern reader, and in doing so, demonstrates a new facility with her craft that I found utterly captivating.

The book begins in classic Gothic fashion. We meet Hannah Setterington waiting at a desolate railway platform, where her new employer sends a broken-down cart driven by a drunken ruffian to collect her. She learns that The New Master is dark and terrifying; rumor has it that he killed his young wife many years ago.

Hannah meets Lord Raeburn and he is indeed terrifying: dark, roaring, and every inch the Gothic hero. It seems a mixed blessing that Hannah knows at first glance that he can’t possibly have killed his young wife. She’s certain, because she was that young wife.

Dougald Pippard has never forgiven Hannah for her desertion, and he has lured her to his newly inherited castle to have his revenge. As Robin Uncapher pointed out in an At the Back Fence column, classic Gothic heroes often seem less satisfying today because it’s necessary to the structure of the story that the hero’s thoughts remain impenetrable until the last chapters. Dodd takes dead aim at this convention, and from the first we’re allowed to see things from Dougald’s point of view.

And what a bratty point of view it often is, because that’s the theme of the this trilogy - the governess’s charges require considerably less civilizing influence than the Lords of the Manors. In a nice change of pace from the children in the earlier installments, Hannah’s charges are Dougald’s Aunt Spring and her three companions. The four elderly ladies are utterly adorable and a force to be reckoned with.

The story touches on all the tried-and-true Gothic motifs - desolate towers, eerie family retainers, long-lost heirs, tragic secrets. However, things don’t always go in the traditional way. Imagine if Mr. Rochester stormed into the parlor for the first time, dark and broody and bellowing, and instead of cringing Jane Eyre sized him up, swatted him across the nose with her fan, and told him to behave himself. Hannah is cut from different cloth than the Gothic heroines of the past: she’s older, experienced, and utterly self-reliant.

As engaging as the Gothic elements are, they take a back seat to the intricate characterization. Hannah and Dougald are both marvelously multi-layered characters, and all of the diverse details of their past combine and reinforce each other. At first, it seems unlikely they’ll each be able to bear up under the combined weight of their pasts. Dougald began life as a plain but wealthy Mister, had a rough-and-tumble youth on the docks, lost his mother and had an uncaring father. Hannah is the illegitimate daughter of a housekeeper, who arranged her marriage to Dougald when she was young. Hannah has always distracted herself from misery from throwing herself into work, which was the one thing her inexperienced, resolutely middle-class husband would not allow. Dougald’s conventional values are firmly rooted in his time and in his social class; Hannah is more forward-thinking, but not in ways that make her seem alien to her historical setting. Initially it seems impossible that their characters will really be consistent, but magically, all of the elements fall into place and we come to see how all of these influences have shaped their personalities.

The intricate plotting and characterization are simply marvelous, and I look forward to seeing more in this vein from Christina Dodd. It’s a great pleasure when an author you’ve followed over many years, and already liked, makes such a tremendous advance in her craft. For those who like to see stories with all the cogs and gears of a well-made pocket watch, and for all those with a nostalgia for Gothic tales, I highly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Mary Novak
Grade : A

Sensuality: Hot

Review Date : April 2, 2001

Publication Date: 2001

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