While reading The Countess I couldn’t help but be reminded of Moliére, the 17th century king of comedy. The novel is quite a farce; unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good one.
Christiana Fairgrave doesn’t have the usual reaction when her husband drops dead. Instead of being upset, she’s delighted – despite being charming and making her fall for him while he courted her, after the marriage he became verbally abusive. However, her husband’s death now puts a damper on the plans for her sisters to find husbands. The reason Christiana had to get married in the first place was to pay off her father’s uncharacteristic gambling debts. Now he’s in trouble again, and Christiana and her sisters decide to find a poor lord for the elder one to marry, to gain access to a generous dowry provided by a deceased uncle. So they do the obvious thing: Tell everyone that the Earl is ill, pack his dead body in ice, and head for a ball.
Of course, when the real Earl of Fairgrave shows up at the ball, Christiana is shocked. You see, Richard is the elder twin; George, the man to whom Christiana has been married, tried to kill his brother and thinking he succeeded, simply impersonated him. This was apparently done to avoid the legalities of wills. But now Richard is back, surprised to learn that his brother is dead, and that said brother married a woman under Richard’s name. Rather than tell the truth and reveal the scandal, he decides to wait it out a few days- but while the women think that Christiana’s husband has arisen from the dead (suddenly way nicer than he had been before dying), Richard and his friend discover that the death wasn’t an accident, but murder. And there’s still the body to deal with.
This book is the first of two that tell the same story, from different perspectives, like Julia Quinn’s Duke of Wyndham experiment a few years ago that yielded mixed results. From what I gather, this book is better than its sequel, The Heiress (which is essentially just a retelling of this novel), but there are still a number of holes in the story; action that takes place off-scene then is recounted to some characters, or characters constantly retelling action or conversations that just occurred to the ones that had been off doing other things (presumably to be featured in the other book. The result is, well, a lot of telling — and not much showing.
The writing did prove to be the weakest part of the story. While I didn’t necessarily enjoy the farcical elements of the story, I could appreciate them for what they were; but the stilted dialogue (always said either dryly or solemnly), awkward word choices, occasional poor syntax, and anachronistic language pulled me out of the story more than once. Seriously– the heroine at one point said, “It’s okay, though, I actually feel good.” If it weren’t for the outfits and the carriages, this would be a wholly contemporary novel.
The characters were the only highlight of the story. I actually did like Richard, and I mostly liked Christiana despite her occasional TSTL moments. The contrast between Richard and his brother was clear, if a bit heavy-handed, and the main couple had a good relationship. The lapses in the writing and the jumpy storytelling, though, made the book fall flat for me. Even a good hero couldn’t save The Countess.