Book Review

The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble

B-

Title: The Game and the Governess
Author: Kate Noble
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster 2014
ISBN: 9781476749389
Genre: Historical: European

Book The Game and the Governess

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-.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Elyse says:

    Damn you instant buy! Just kidding! I cannot wait to read this

  2. 2
    Rebecca says:

    Arrogant male gets his comeuppance and manages to grow into someone a deserving lady can live with? Mmm, catnip. Thanks for this week end’s read!

  3. 3
    Lovecow2000 says:

    I needed more grovelling from Nat and John for how they treated Phoebe.

  4. 4
    kkw says:

    Is there a duke and an earl? Is Ned’s a courtesy title? Who received Phoebe’s letter?

    I’m totally going to read this and discover for myself, but meanwhile I’m confused.

  5. 5
    DonnaMarie says:

    So, John Turner is Ned’s secretary. Phoebe’s father committed suicide after be swindled by Ned’s secretary. Ergo, John Turner is responsible for Phoebe’s father’s ruin. And he’s getting his own book. I’m hoping I missed something.

  6. 6
    Kate says:

    Yep, you did, DonnaMarie! :)  “she pens an absolutely blistering letter to the Duke of Ashby, who’s former secretary was the one who swindled her father.” FORMER secretary=swindler, John is the current one.

  7. 7
    Rebecca says:

    I’m now half way through the book even though it’s not the weekend yet, because hello! Catnip! I am agreeing with this review more and more. Ned’s asshattery knows no bounds. And Phoebe is both the hero and the heroine of this tale. But I do so love stories of male comeuppance!

  8. 8
    Daisy says:

    So the reference to the Duke of Ashby is just a mistake, should be Earl?

    I was confused too, since I like to think Sarah is infallible.

  9. 9
    Celia Marsh says:

    I think the Duke was a typo on the reviewer’s part.  Ned is the Earl of Ashby, and there is no Duke in the mix.  I love Kate Noble’s books so much, but this one did somehow drag at the start.  I’d blamed the prince and pauper plot line, ymmv.  I also could have cared less about the resort—and honestly can’t remember what the result was, but I don’t think you’re supposed to care much.  It’s the point of the set up, but it’s also something even Ned and John don’t care about. 

    Your review missed part of the reason I ultimately liked the book as much as I did—while Ned is learning how much privilege he didn’t realize he had, John is also learning that Ned’s life is not a bed of roses either.  It’s a much more comfortable bed than a secretary might have, but it’s got problems just the same, such as people being blind to his faults and treating him more as a goal.  It’s not a poor little rich boy thing, but Ned is right that his life is harder than John sees, it’s just a different sort of hardship than working class problems—he lacks privacy and honesty and affection in his place, which as his secretary is easier to find.  It was more complex than I had expected, and because of that I’m interested in John’s story.

    And I think it also brushed on some elements of gender privilege (John’s options vs Phoebe’s, the son vs the daughter) and a lot of nuances of the class privilege—even John’s position is still pretty respectable as an upper servant, and Ned does look at that a bit as well.  It’s not just the difference between an Earl and a (working/middle class) blue collar secretary,  but between the secretary and the servants, between a daughter of privilege and a governess, and I liked that angle a lot.

  10. 10
    SB Sarah says:

    @Daisy:

    So the reference to the Duke of Ashby is just a mistake, should be Earl?

    I was confused too, since I like to think Sarah is infallible.

    Ah, no, I screw up and this is one of those times. I’m sorry! I was trying to explain the plot and made a muck of it, plus I defaulted to “duke” instead of “earl” because “historical romance.” I expect dukes, I guess!

    So the sequence goes like this:

    Ned inherits said earldom and finances are a hot mess. Discovers former secretary has been very naughty.

    Former VN secretary finds Phoebe’s dad and begins swindling him, convincing her dad in part because of VN secretary’s connection to the earl. When Phoebe’s father writes a letter asking about said secretary, Earl reveals he is in deed Very Naughty as a secretary, but then asks that VN secretary’s deed be kept quiet so as to avoid embarrassment. Phoebe’s dad had already lost the money and then killed himself.

     

    @Celia:

    Your review missed part of the reason I ultimately liked the book as much as I did—while Ned is learning how much privilege he didn’t realize he had, John is also learning that Ned’s life is not a bed of roses either.

    I know just which part you’re thinking of, yes. How to discuss without spoilers. Hmm. John’s actions were so awful toward Phoebe and Ned, and made me so angry, that my reaction to his realization that Ned’s life isn’t very easy either was, “No shit, Sherlock. You think?” I get that John had become blind to the difficult parts of being the earl, but he was the secretary. I thought he would have known at least some of the difficult parts already – especially given how his position started. I understand how his resentment would grow, especially because Ned was being a prat, too. But, boy was I mad at him.

    And I think it also brushed on some elements of gender privilege (John’s options vs Phoebe’s, the son vs the daughter) and a lot of nuances of the class privilege—even John’s position is still pretty respectable as an upper servant, and Ned does look at that a bit as well.  It’s not just the difference between an Earl and a (working/middle class) blue collar secretary,  but between the secretary and the servants, between a daughter of privilege and a governess, and I liked that angle a lot.

    Agreed – the differences in gender created more disparity. And I did like the exploration of how the male secretary occupied the same “between space” in a household that a governess did —not quite family, but not quite servant, either. I’ve read a number of governess romances that explore that weird not upstairs/not downstairs but I hadn’t read one that looked at the male-dominated between spaces, and that was very interesting, especially the contrast between them.

    My apologies for the errors, y’all.

  11. 11
    Shannon says:

    I was reading this when I saw the review. I noted the grade, and then went la-la-la and returned to reading.  This is a hard book.  It builds slowly.  It has a cast of thousands.  Okay, not that many, but a lot.  Everyone has an agenda or a grudge or a complaint.  This regency setting is not about balls, glittering jewel, or flirtatious kisses of a gloved hand.  And Ned is a complete jackass, douche bag, etc at the beginning.  It is painful to watch him fall flat on his face time and again. 

    I think it’s so slow because there’s no ah-HA moment for Ned.  He makes one step toward redemption and then reverts.  Of course, he remains fixed on winning the wager for a long time.  He also seems to be clueless for the longest time that the wager will hurt people not involved in it.

    It was also hard to watch Turner attempt to spoil the wager time and again.  In his own way, he was just a self-centered.  It just seemed more acceptable because he did occupy in-between space.

    What’s funny is that this landed on my Kindle is that our local newspaper had a well-known author recommending this as one of her best three August reads.  After reading a lot of the RITA-nominated books, I am coming to realize that authors value a lot of things in writing that are not necessarily of interest to a reader.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    @Shannon:

    What’s funny is that this landed on my Kindle is that our local newspaper had a well-known author recommending this as one of her best three August reads.  After reading a lot of the RITA-nominated books, I am coming to realize that authors value a lot of things in writing that are not necessarily of interest to a reader.

    Oh, yes. I agree – though I’m curious what specifically you’re thinking of? I have had a very similar thought with regards to the RITA nominees and winners, too.

  13. 13
    Shannon says:

    @SB Sarah

    I think writers think of plotting, writing, and what I’ll call “sizzle.”

    Authors seem to like complex or unique plots.  The Game and the Governess is an unusual trope of people switching places.  Not that it has not been done in the Prison of Zenda or Moon Over Parador.  To Dangerous to Desire is another that takes the trope of potential lovers facing danger and does it a little differently.  The Duke of Midnight is a mystery/revenge story, again with a twist.  I think the historical romance writer faces a huge challenge to construct new plots, especially established authors.  I think there’s a cheering on factor:  If you can write it new and fresh, then I can too.  *** And I as a reader also like new takes on old tropes; I like these too—I buy them and will continue to do so.  It’s just that authors when recommending see the new shiny object, and I as a reader go, oh shiny object, but XXX just doesn’t work, whether that is dialog, character development, or love vs. lust.

    Authors know about voice.  They know about dialogue.  They are masters of description.  Like every reader, they have their preferences.  The thing is that in almost all of the RITA nominees, I can find a voice I love but it sags when it comes to another element.  Or vice versa.  I think the RWA members find one or two of these and love the book.  Yes, I am a demanding reader that wants it all-ALL OF IT.  Unreasonable, yes.  It’s just that once in a while a novel does have it all.

    We all know about sizzle.  It’s different.  It’s why I love one guy and think another is a frog.  It’s some element of a story that I glom on to—maybe a scientist heroine, maybe a scarred hero whose particular hell makes my go “awh-sigh-swoon-get out the healing magic of love.”  Almost every RITA nominee’s book had something, maybe not my “catnip” but something I could see that others will need to go back and read it just one more time because that moment is so good.  Unfortunately, I think readers, including authors, are such a diverse group that we just don’t get someone’s particular sizzle.  Which is why so many people do read the reviews on SBTB, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Good Reads.

    Does any of this make sense?  Oh well.  It was fun to think about.

  14. 14
    Cordy says:

    Thanks for this! I’m trying to read another Kate Noble book (Revealed), and finding it rough going (the heroine is initially unlikeable-ish), but this one sounds totally up my alley. I really love historicals that actually grapple a bit with the realities of their day.

  15. 15
    Cordy says:

    Update: I bought and read this instantly, and I thought it was outstanding. A very thoughtful, serious romance, about complex emotional and philosophical themes, that shows-rather-than-tells the main couple falling in love in what felt like a very believable way.

    I would give it a much higher grade than a B- – this is one of the few-ish historicals I’ve read recently that have really grabbed my brain. I found the “Trading Places” setup an excellent way to explore something that often lurks unacknowledged at the fringe of historical romances: if you weren’t rich and you weren’t an aristocrat, in early 19th century Britain, life could be terrifyingly small and unstable, hinging on your ability to maintain your own reputation and the goodwill of those more powerful than you. A lot of historicals gloss over this (I get it – who wants to hear about the total powerlessness of large parts of the population when you’re in it for glamorous balls and (apparently) dozens of hot dukes?) but I find it very refreshing when it does pop up. I really enjoyed reading about Ned’s journey from “I am awesome because I am, not just because of my title” to realizing that a poor, untitled gentleman like a secretary doesn’t just magically bask in goodwill all the time, no matter how great his personality may or may not be.

    Phoebe is a great character. And I really liked John Turner (about whose romantic adventures the next book is, I think?) and found it poignant to read of someone smart, savvy and ambitious, but stuck in a time that didn’t believe in social mobility all that much, trapping him in a position that realistically was probably quite far beneath his skill and intelligence, and having to grin and bear it, because it was the best option available to him.

    Thanks for the rec!

  16. 16
    SB Sarah says:

    @Cordy:

    I’m so pleased you liked it! Excellent. :)

    @Shannon:

    Yes, I think I understand what you’re saying. And I agree: chemistry between characters and chemistry between the story/characters and the reader are both very hard things to create.

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