Recommended Read, Review

Review: Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale (2010)

Heat Factor: The time they have sex when they’re seventeen is a little too real

Character Chemistry: It’s obvious to everyone but her that he’s head over heels

Plot: First love reunited

Overall: This book is ridiculous

I recently made a list of books that were so good I couldn’t review them and I included not one, but two Kinsales on the list. So my mom, aka the most devoted reader of this here blog, went to her local library and checked out the only Kinsale they had in the whole collection. Then she came to visit me, so obviously I read it. From what I can tell, Lessons in French was Kinsale’s last book, and it’s very different in tone from the others that I’ve read. Flowers from the Storm, For My Lady’s Heart, and Shadowheart are all high-drama, high-emotion books; in contrast, Lessons in French is more of a light-hearted farce. There is a scene where the hero and heroine are literally trying to hide a full-grown bull in the kitchen. But even though it’s lighter fare, I would not call this book a fast read—the language is still dense and mannered and the characters have plenty of emotions to work through before they get to their happy ending.

Here’s the premise: Trev and Callie were young and in love. Then Callie’s father caught them almost boning in a carriage and banished Trev from the neighborhood. You see, Trev is the heir to a dukedom—in France. In the early 19th century. So really I should say, his family had a dukedom thirty years ago, but not so much anymore. Anyway, Trev heads off to France to seek his fortune and joins the war effort (except he fighting for Napoleon, not against him [!!!!!!]). Ten years later, he’s back in their sleepy country village to visit his sick mother. Have I mentioned that he, uh, was not successful at regaining the family dukedom, but has been writing extravagant letters to his mothers about his success for years? Anyways, everyone thinks he’s a successful duke returned home, when really he’s been supporting himself by running boxing matches. Plus he’s on the run from the law (it’s a long story).

While Trev was off having his adventures, Callie has been at home. She is still unmarried, having been jilted not once, not twice, but three times. She spends her time raising prize-winning bulls. She has resigned herself to spinsterhood because there is clearly something wrong with her.

So when Trev returns, we have a second chance romance with a splash of dishonesty, with a bonus love triangle, since one of Callie’s old suitors has returned with his tail between his legs. 

This is a standard setup, but this book is really interesting. (Sidenote: Whenever someone gives an interview saying they’re “reinventing the genre” I’m like…how about you read a masterful romance novelist who knows the tropes inside and out and goes from that foundation? You need the fundamentals before you can fun.) Kinsale doesn’t data dump at the beginning, but rather slowly reveals information about the characters. Trev doesn’t come home thinking “Oh man, I can’t tell anyone the law is after me!” Rather, he comes home feeling guilty about the ancestral home and having conversations with shady characters; through the slow reveal of plot, Kinsale slowly reveals the characters and their true circumstances.

To give another example of how Kinsale builds up the characters in layers, let’s take Callie’s daydreaming. Throughout the book, Callie escapes into daydreams. The first occurs on page 3, when she sits on the side of a ballroom, imagining herself dancing with a fortune hunter; the daydream culminates in her scorned suitor writing bad poetry dedicated to her and throwing himself off a cliff. High melodrama this, and vastly entertaining. As the story progresses, the daydreams get more specific—but we also start to learn about the daydreams that were too close to her heart to imagine. She can imagine Trev kidnapping her and running off to a life of piracy, but not Trev doing anything so mundane as marry her. And then, at the very end of the book, this occurs:

Callie tried to make a daydream for herself. It was what she always did when she could not quite bear what was real. She was, as most of those who knew her had informed her with some exasperation at one time or another, quite capable of becoming so lost in her thoughts that she did not hear any words spoken to her. But this time she could find no way to lose herself in any reverie—or delusion, as they all seemed.

Kinsale has been showing Callie do this throughout the book, but it isn’t until the very end that she spells out how these daydreams function for her. A lesser book would have put that second sentence on page 3, right before her first fantasy. Instead, because we’ve seen these reveries so many times, we’ve earned this passage, this insight into Callie’s mindset at her lowest moment (when she feels that Trev has betrayed her irrevocably).

Anyways, where I’m going with this is that Kinsale is a smart writer, and her careful construction of romance shines through not just in her serious books, but also in her lighter fare. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this (even if it didn’t change my life, and clearly did not make the list of romance novels that were so good I couldn’t review them).

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

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