The plot is this: Sebastian is the kind of rake we find in romance all the time – one who is not a jerk. That is to say: he does not despoil virgins, he does not string his lovers along with emotional promises, and he does not coerce the unwilling. He is also a publically controversial figure. Sebastian is a scientist who lectures about his belief that traits are passed on by means of sexual procreation – quite inflammatory stuff in Victorian England, which is when and where the book is set.
But, AHA! Sebastian is not actually the person who has come up with these scientific insights – they are the work of Countess Violet, Sebastian’s best friend. Violet is unable to get her papers published under her own name and so Sebastian fronts for her. But Sebastian likes to be liked, and a significant portion of the public hates him, and so he tells Violet he won’t present her work as his any more. This causes a shift in their relationship. Somehow, and frankly I might have been drinking some Nyquil during this transition because I can’t remember it very well, Sebastian starts seriously courting Violet, who has been his platonic BFF for years. Violet has vast amounts of trauma to overcome and she hates herself and believes everyone else hates her. So Sebastian must use all his charm to win her over.
So here’s the thing, I read this while I was getting over Strep Throat (insert music of doom). My experience was not altogether unpleasant – I watched a lot of Sleepy Hollow (yay, Sleepy Hollow), and I slept a lot and I took my antibiotics and read The Countess Conspiracy. But it was all, including the book, kind of weird in that way that the whole world is weird when you are running a temperature for a long time and consuming large amounts of Nyquil instead of food. The book felt off, for reasons I shall enumerate. But I can’t help but wonder if it was really weird for the reasons I’ve come up with so I can sound clever, or if it was a perfectly coherent book and I was the one who was weird, what with the temperature and the yummy Nyquil?
Here are the reasons that the book seemed strange to me:
1. I thought the central conflict was going to be about how Sebastian wouldn’t present Violet’s work, and the impact this would have on her. But Violet was like, “OK, fair enough” and that was that. Towards the end of the book, the thread gets picked up again as Violet figures out how to present her own work, and it’s all very girl power. I’m all about girl power, so that was great. But it wasn’t a conflict between Violet and Sebastian, and I felt that some of the science stuff got lost in the larger mess of Violet’s horrible, horrible past life.
2. The conflict between Violet and Sebastian was about whether anyone could ever love Violet and whether Sebastian could have a relationship with her given her horror of sex. And that was a fine conflict. Violet’s trauma was so horrifying that it pretty much put me off sex too, and it’s historically plausible, and it was touching to see Sebastian win her trust. But I was so convinced that this was going to be a story about the challenges of being a female scientist that I was totally thrown off by the actual main conflict. I never quite caught up to what was actually going on.
3. This is part of a series of stand-alone books that are loosely connected, so we’ve seen most of these characters before. I have no memory of Violet being so angry and bitter. Am I misremembering her? Her appearance in The Duchess War (Carrie's Grade: A+) is one of a fun, playful, warm person. Maybe the disconnect just reflects Violet’s carefully crafted public persona versus her interior life, but it was jarring. I couldn’t recognize her.
4. And speaking of people I don’t recognize, I was totally shocked at how carelessly Oliver and Robert disregard Violet. Since when have they been such jerks? This led to a rather funny exchange in which Sebastian scolds them for being callous about Violet, and then Violet appears and makes the same speech about their treatment of Sebastian. But still, who are these people? Haven’t I just read all these other books about them in which they are great guys?
For me, this book was full of dissonance and it was just too angsty for my personal taste, which is saying a lot since I have made my way through a LOT of Milan angst. But, for readers who like angst, and who aren’t so attached to the other books (or simply didn’t interpret the characters the way I did, and also aren’t swigging Nyquil), this book will be a winner. I say that because Milan remains a superlative writer. If you look at Sebastian and Violet with fresh eyes and can let go of preconceptions about who they are based on past books, they are incredibly well drawn. The use of language remains vibrant and Violet’s mom is a force of nature. Milan takes her time with Sebastian and Violet so the conflict between them is believable (even though it’s not the conflict I thought we were going to be dealing with) and the resolution is believable as well.
Another thing I appreciated is that Violet solves her own problem (the one about how to present her own work). She doesn’t need Sebastian to swoop in and save her. He supports her beautifully, but she’s her own, capable person. It was especially satisfying to see other women rally around her.
I wanted a book about women and science and I got that, but it was all mixed in with a completely different book about emotional trauma and recovering from sexual and emotional abuse. They were both good books but I think I would have preferred to read them separately, not mixed together into one rather crowded story. This is a great book for somebody, just not so much for me. I feel like the book earns a B- for it’s general level of craft even though I wasn’t that crazy about it. But I’m longing to hear what other people, who weren’t in a slightly altered state of consciousness when they read it, thought of it.