The Countess Misbehaves
I will say this for Nan Ryan – she knows how to keep a plot moving along. The characters may all be paper-thin, and even the ostensible hero and heroine are disturbingly amoral; the villains may be ludicrous stereotypes who mostly serve to have the kinky sex that the hero and heroine don’t engage in; the history may be wildly inaccurate to the point of offensiveness – but by God, the plot races from point A to point Z in a way that can keep a reader turning the pages even as she asks herself why she is bothering.
The countess in question is Madeleine Cavendish, a widow who is traveling by ship from England to New Orleans, where she has a fiancé awaiting her. On board, she meets Armand de Chevalier, a Creole rogue who spends most of the voyage smirking at the countess and making insinuating remarks to her. She ignores him until the ship starts to sink – then she suddenly decides that if she only has an hour to live, she wants to spend it naked with him. Naturally, this causes complications when they both survive the sinking and find themselves living in the same city; Armand would happily indulge again but Madeleine has guiltily and haughtily reverted to icy noblewoman.
As a heroine, I found Madeleine pretty unbearable. She waffles between snob and sex kitten with Armand, and spends a lot of time feeling guilty about her fiancé, but doesn’t do anything to end her engagement, even though she realizes that she doesn’t feel much of anything for him. She drifts along indecisively until she drifts back into Armand’s arms. Of course, her fiancé is a snake, but that didn’t make me like Madeleine’s way of doing things any better. And aside from her lust for Armand, there’s nothing to Madeleine. She’s fabulously gorgeous and rich, and spends her days shopping and living a social whirl.
Armand is no deeper. He is a rogue, of course, with plenty of women, but once he has sampled Madeleine’s charms, he can’t forget her. Why? We never find out, really, but it doesn’t matter because both hero and heroine are superhumanly gorgeous and less than an inch deep emotionally. That’s okay, I guess, if you like the distractions from the steamy sex parts to be minimal . But the combination of shallow characterization, and incredibly weak historical detail ultimately made The Countess Misbehaves forgettable except for when it was irritating me.
I don’t have a problem with romances that are light on history, really I don’t. It’s when the lack of historical accuracy is so great or so offensive that it distracts from the book that I have a problem, and both of these were a problem with The Countess Misbehaves. Despite being set in 1856, the first third of the book wanted so badly to be Titanic that the ship, the voyage and even the sinking were described in a way that fit very well into 1912, but was hopelessly anachronistic for the 1850s. Madeleine and Armand even travel on a “White Star liner” more than a decade before that line had its beginning, let alone its reputation for top-drawer luxurious travel.
When a book is set in 1850s New Orleans, slavery must inescapably be dealt with – or so one would think. Yet this book wants the modern reader to identify with a hero and heroine who don’t even notice it. The three main black characters in the book are offensive stereotypes: a loyal house servant secretly in love with her master, a quadroon mistress desperate to rise above her station, and a mysterious voodoo queen. Then there were the smaller but comical oversights. For example, Madeleine’s full hoop skirts are so voluminous that Armand has to cut out all her underskirts when they are trying to escape the ship (and I fail to see how having yards of fabric now twisting around one’s legs and dragging behind is much of an improvement). Yet a few pages earlier, Madeleine had flopped down onto a bed on her back, which of course would have thrown the skirts up over her head and probably whacked her in the nose with a hoop.
The Countess Misbehaves reads very much like the sort of late 1970s/early 1980s bodice-ripper that I giggled over with my friends in study hall. They were entertaining then, but I also could have lived on potato chips and M&Ms at that point in my life. These days I require a bit more substance in both my food and my reading.