There goes Theresa Romain, kicking me in the feels again. I don’t know what it is about her books, but I always have this moment of anxiety where I think the hero and heroine might not actually get together. And my anxiety was appropriate to To Charm a Naughty Countess because the hero suffers from social anxiety.
This book is all kinds of Elyse bait. It has a tortured virgin hero. It has a badass heroine who is, for all intents and purposes (or intensive purposes, as my coworkers like to say), a rake. It has witty Regency sass-banter. I’d probably get into a sketchy panel van for this book, to be honest.
The thing I liked most about To Charm a Naughty Countess was that Romain flips the gender roles. I’ve read this story before: shy country virgin needs to marry ASAP and a sophisticated rake offers to help find a match—all in an attempt to get closer to said virgin. Except in this book the virgin is Michael, Duke of Wyverne, and the rake is the heroine, Caroline, Countess of Stratton.
Michael has spent only one Season in London eleven years ago. He’s been devoted to running his dukedom. Despite all his hard work the estate is suffering due to unseasonable cold (the book takes place in 1816, the Year Without a Summer). He’s out of credit and options, so he needs to marry money fast. Being a duke this shouldn’t be too hard—except he loathes the ton, the balls, the unspoken rules of society.
He meets Caroline at a party. She and Michael have a shared history—more on that later—and she’s never really gotten over him. When she finds out he’s bride-shopping, she offers to be his matchmaker. She believes that by helping Michael find a wife, she’ll be able to get him out of her system.
Michael has a reputation as Mad Michael due to his behavior eleven years ago. This is compounded by the fact that he suffers from social anxiety and panic attacks. Faced with a crush of strangers at a ball or marriage-minded-mamas, Michael starts stammering, floundering, and gets horrible headaches. He isolates himself, behaving eccentrically (taking apart a lamp versus socializing) to spare himself the trauma. When he is truly emotionally overwhelmed midway through the novel (and after getting his V-card punched by Caroline), he has a panic attack.
And here’s something else super cool that Romain did. Instead of the stereotypical tortured hero who suppresses his feels and just stomps around the moors wailing, “Cathy!”, Michael wears his heart on his sleeve. His anxiety prevents him from suppressing his response when he’s emotionally fraught. And the fact that one really knows about panic attacks makes his ‘episodes’ particularly horrifying. I’ve had panic attacks. You literally feel as though you are going to have a heart attack and die. If you don’t know what’s happening; it’s terrifying. So sometimes Michael wonders if he is indeed mad.
Anyway, Caroline knows that Michael is nervous and that he legitimately doesn’t pick up on social cues. She’s the darling of the ton, rich, witty and beautiful. A widow (her marriage was to a very old man) she has freedoms most women don’t and takes lovers to please herself. She guides Michael through society, and because she acts as though she has zero fucks left to give, everyone assumes she’s better than them and respects her. I totally see Caroline played by Emma Thompson in the movie version of this book.
Since she’s so busy molding society to her whims, Caroline has missed out on having suitors who are genuinely interested in her, and that’s where Michael is different. He’s so upfront about his need for money and his shortfalls regarding socializing, that he might be the only person she’s with who isn’t putting on some sort of show. Similarly, Michael finds his ability to confide in Caroline and not have act a part with her refreshing. Just as every maiden she brings before him falls short, every lover she’s taken pales in comparison to him.
Like all good Regency rakes Caroline is struck by how shallow her previous relationships were. Just like all good Regency virgins, Michael realizes only Caroline makes his Netherfield tingle.
There were some things about this book that didn’t work for me. Namely the Very Bad Thing that happened eleven years ago between Caroline and Michael. The reader doesn’t find out what that Thing is until the very end of the book, at which point it was anti-climactic. I thought it would have better served the story had I known straight off, and it certainly would have added depth and context to Caroline and Michael’s relationship.
I also felt there were parts of the book where Michael’s social ineptitude bordered on naiveté that was unbelievable. Sort of like if Sheldon Cooper was a duke (someone write that for me). Okay, not quite that bad, but I think he would have known some things—with regards to the Very Bad Thing—were not okay by virtue of his upbringing.
Still these were minor concerns in an otherwise lovely story. This is the second book in Romain’s Matchmaker trilogy, and I am eagerly looking forward to the third.