The Game and the Governess is a thoughtful, intricate novel that deals very heavily with privilege, especially the privilege of the hero. The description that's part of the cover copy says it best, I think: Trading Places meets Pride and Prejudice.
That's pretty accurate.
Ned, better known as Lucky Ned, agrees to a wager with his secretary and former military superior officer, John Turner, that he can convince a young woman to fall for him, even if they switched places so John posed as the earl, and Ned posed as his secretary.
The test would be during the period of time in which they'd agreed to be in Ned's former village of Hollyhock, where a group of men have come up with a proposal to pipe a hot spring from a neighboring mine into the town and set it up as a bathing spa, much like Bath, only not in Bath because Bath is in Bath (obviously). So Ned and John show up at the household of a local family who will host them both while “the earl” examines the site, meets all the people involved, and makes a decision.
Now, in order to make it past the first few chapters, the reader has to be willing to do a few things.
First, tolerate the initial conceit of the story. I mean, it's pretty pompous and arrogant to fool a bunch of one presumes well-meaning people on the basis of a wager, and moreover, it's very clear that John, and their friend Rhys, who agrees to be the witness to said wager, have some long-standing problems with Ned and his behavior. But instead of calling Ned on his actions (because he's an earl and they probably can't by that point) they decide to dupe a bunch of people. Plus, winning the ardor and admiration of a female is their prize, which is itself also problematic. But I told myself that the characters, Ned specifically, couldn't stay buttmunchy forever, and I trusted that he'd be redeemed sufficiently (he mostly is).
Second, it's painful in beginning to watch Ned trip and fall over his privilege over and over once he no longer has it. I've said before in a different context that no one trips gracefully over their privilege. It's always face plant to scorpion, every time. And Ned does it repeatedly.
He's decidedly unheroic in many instances, and he has a lot of ground to make up once he starts wising up and acquiring a clue, or several of them. In the beginning, he is an incredibly callous and thoughtless tool to his friends, especially John. He belittles the thing John values most, and I wanted to hit him with a houseplant for being such an ass. He has a LOT of ground to make up.
Lucky for both men, who do plan to interfere with one another's as much as possible within the rules of their wager, the heroine has a great deal of backbone and is not inclined to put up with much from Ned.
Phoebe Baker is the first character we meet in this story. She was a student at a highly-regarded boarding school for young women when her father drowns himself after losing all his money – money that was technically Phoebe's inheritance from her mother. Her fees have been paid through the end of the term, but once it's common knowledge that her status has fallen dramatically, she's treated poorly by her former friends, and is taken out of class regularly by one of the instructors to assist her in classes, manage tests and perform other administrative tasks.
When the term ends, she is asked to leave the school, and has no funds, no connections, and no options. Her teacher gives her the name of a family looking for a governess, and explains that she's been preparing Phoebe for that role during the term by removing her from classroom activities that would not help her in the immediate future. She also gives Phoebe advice that will change Phoebe's life, and give her a way to manage the pain of her new route through life.
But before Phoebe leaves the school, she pens an absolutely blistering letter to the
Duke Earl of Ashby (aka Ned), whose former secretary was the one who swindled her father. If Ashby had warned people publicly about the secretary's crimes instead of keeping them to himself to preserve his reputation (this isn't supposition on Phoebe's part – Ashby confirms it in an earlier letter), her father would still be alive and she wouldn't be on her own. She swears to hate him and eventually find her revenge against him.
The parallels between Phoebe's reversal of fortune, which happen to her and are certainly not her choice, and Ned's decision to withdraw from earldom for a particular amount of time, elucidate the vast differences between the way perceived status dictates treatment and social expectations and experiences. Both Ned and Phoebe experience pain, embarrassment, and shame due to the way they are treated before and after their change of status.
The problem for me was that the story dragged at some parts, and I caught myself skimming chapters wherein Phoebe was not present. The progress of the story was told in small increments that made it difficult for me to keep my attention on the book. That said, to be completely fair, I was traveling when I read this book, and rather tired. My brain was not as curious as usual. So I cannot know if my reaction would have been different had I read this book without travel and accompanying sleepiness.
The part that bothered me most is that Ned kept his very very large secret from Phoebe – it's one of the major points of the story, after all – for so long, any redemption he earned with me was compromised by the fact that he kept on lying. Keeping the secret becomes a compounded problem, too: Phoebe hates the earl of Ashby (not realizing of course that Ned is said earl), and Ned knows that once she discovers who he is AND that he lied to her, she's not going to speak to him again.
On one hand, keeping the wager a secret amid the increasingly negative consequences of revealing it sustained the tension, but I disliked Ned for continuing to deceive her for so long. Even though I understood why, for me, it left so much room for Phoebe (and me) to question his real motivations, and whether he had gotten over his ignorant selfishness.
Phoebe is a fascinating character who has a lot going on beneath the surface, as Ned and the reader find out, but she doesn't change as much as the hero. It makes sense – he has the longest way to travel for character redemption. Her changes are mostly choices, not realizations about herself. She has to decide at one point whether to attend a village dance with secretary Ned, despite her employer warning her that doing so may jeopardize her position as their governess.
My favorite part of the book, however, is Phoebe's philosophy. Phoebe learns very quickly the ways in which carrying hate harms herself, and she navigates her painful life with a great deal of empathy for others, including her employers, who are not always kind to her.
This is late in the book, so I'll color it white as it's mildly spoilery, but I love this part:
“Yes, happiness is a decision. And it is an easy one to make when everything is going your way, but when it’s not? I saved my soul by finding silly things to laugh at every day. Until it became habit. Until all I want to do every day is enjoy it.”
I loved this facet of her character. She dealt with painful and awful changes of circumstance and was a victim of other people's foolishness and perfidy, and was told by sympathetic teacher that she can let life's hardships – and there were many – make her bitter and angry, or she can choose to be happy and find something to be joyful about.
So Phoebe sees the painful things for what they are, but finds silly joy in spite of them as much as possible.
It's a neat parallel to the hero, who has also lived most of his earl-ful life also choosing happiness, but more of an “ignorance is bliss” type of happiness. He does not have to deal with anything if he does not want to – being an earl has some major perks and that's one of them – but he allows his desire to not be bothered with painful or sad things to blind him to how those same circumstances affect the people he does care about, and the friends he has.
Ned keeps stumbling horribly over his own privilege, and the status he got used to pretty quickly once he inherited his title, partially out of ignorance as to how anyone other than himself is treated when they're around him and are not of the same station, and ignorance that preserves his limited but precious happy existence. He allows his blithe ignorance to color his own memories of the past and of the war and the way he sees and treats his friends. Doing so compromises his personality, and he doesn't see it. That blissful ignorance is part of the motivation for the wager.
Phoebe chose happiness despite seeing the painful elements of her life. She's aware of them, and finds joy despite them. Ned chooses happiness because ignorance is easier than honesty. And of course the honesty catches up with him. Phoebe's method allows her the peace of forgiveness, of seeing people as human, of having empathy for others and thus for herself. Ned has little empathy because he doesn't see anyone outside of himself, and when he learns empathy, it's painful for him. But it makes him better because of it.
His changes are larger. He has to change the most, and seeing him at the beginning is so awkward and cringeworthy. He is not very heroic, unfortunately. Phoebe doesn't have to change much, except to let him in and trust him. And to stand up for herself. And when she does, it's glorious. Phoebe is a quiet, understated bad ass.
I am unsure whether it was the circumstances in which I read the book that led me to be less emotionally engaged with the characters, so it's difficult to factor that aspect into my evaluation of it. Specifically, I really didn't care much about the bathing resort part of the plot, and never cared about the people involved. I saw the leaders of the proposition, the ones trying to kiss up to the earl to get their bathing resort under way, as a bunch of bumbling dudes who were clearly not up to everything good, and so had little interest in them.
But the ways in which privilege and social interactions are explored in this book made up partially for that lack of interest on my part. Noble writes very thoughtful romances – by which I mean there are many interrelated layers and parallels for each character beneath their surfaces, and I will continue to read whatever she writes to discover them. This is a book I'm still thinking about – as usual – and while I didn't enjoy reading it as much as I would have liked, I am enjoying thinking about how it worked. I don't know if I'll read John Turner's book as soon as it comes out (he's the secretary who temporarily becomes the earl) because he didn't cover himself with glory in this book, but I'm very curious to see how his story continues.
It's strange to halfheartedly recommend a book, but that's how I feel about this one: Ned takes a LOT of time to get where he's going, and he's really difficult to accept as a hero in the beginning. But Phoebe is tremendous, and a heroine worth discovering. My initial grade for this was a C+ on the northern border, but the degree to which I've been thinking about this book elevates it to a B-.