The Christmas Countess
The Christmas Countess by Adrienne Basso is a perfect illustration of the fact that too much chocolate is bad for you. Generally I’m all for slow, character-driven romances without too much external conflict, so when I settled down with this book I thought I was in for a delightful holiday read. But in the end, it proved this romance was too sweet for me, and it left me with a hunger for some peppered salami.
Six years ago, vicar’s daughter Rebecca Tremaine and her lawyer fiancé Philip anticipated their vows just before Philip got killed in an accident. Rebecca found herself pregnant and got shipped off to a great-aunt in Cornwall. She was told that her baby died, but now, after the death of her father, she finds a letter telling her that her little girl was adopted by distant relatives, Cameron Sinclair, the Earl of Hampton, and his wife Christina. Rebecca’s brother Daniel,a successful businessman, pressures the now widowed Earl to permit Rebecca to meet her daughter Lily. Cameron is a fair man and agrees to that, but to remain in control of the situation, he invites the Tremaines to a Christmas house-party at his estate.
There is a lot to like in the beginning: First of all, anticipating one’s vows is something people have always done, even in the Victorian Age, so Rebecca’s situation is entirely plausible. Cameron worries that she will tell Lily the truth although she assures him she won’t, and Rebecca is worried that Cameron spoils Lily, so there are some issues that will have to be worked out. In addition, the Tremaines are very much aware that they are not of Cameron’s aristocratic world, and they feel awkward on arriving at his estate. Once Cameron and Rebecca begin to be attracted, how will they deal with these new emotions considering that each still feels deeply attached to a late wife and fiancé, respectively?
However, here the novel kind of fizzles out. The one conflict explored is that of Lily being spoilt, and all the other sources of tension and possible development get blended out directly after being introduced or dealt with in such a short scene that the conclusion feels artificial. Everybody is so kind, reasonable and sweet-natured. After the first third, this novel is exclusively about emotions growing, people becoming aware of emotions and finally people speaking about their emotions eloquently. There is a minor couple, again very sweet, so I’m talking four people here. And really they aren’t talking about emotions the way Victorians would – all the dialogue sounds very much like a 21st century woman would dream of her lover speaking to her.
From the beginning, the historical background is fairly wallpaper-ish, which, in a true character-driven romance, I would not mind much. Rebecca and Cameron, however, completely forget which century and society they are supposed to be in and behave as I would expect a couple in the 1940s to 1960s to act. Which really jars. Or makes them appear TSTL within the Victorian context.
The Christmas Countess is not so much character-driven as emotions-driven. If you are in the mood for an all-around sweet, tender romance without much care for historical detail, this book might be for you, even if it wasn’t for me. Just keep some of that salami handy.