Book Review

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan


Title: The Governess Affair
Author: Courtney Courtney Milan
Publication Info: Milan 2012
ISBN: 9781937248062
Genre: Historical: European

The Governess Affair I have a lot to say about this novella, so let's get the plot summary part done – which is not easy as a lot happens in a short space. Serena Barton was fired from her position as a governess because she was raped by the duke of Clermont, but because she didn't fight back or shout when it happened, she holds herself partially responsible. Serena is determined to be heard and seen now that she's pregnant, and decides for her own sake and the sake of the child she's now carrying, she will sit outside the duke's home and humiliate him – and cause more discord with the duke's very wealthy wife, alienating the duke from the spouse and fortune he very much needs. The longer she sits outside the duke's home in all sorts of lovely London weather, the more people will wonder, and talk, and speculate. She will cause the duke trouble by refusing to hide – especially when she begins to show.

Hugo Marshall is an employee of the duke of Clermont, known as “the Wolf of Clermont.” He's sort of the consigliere of the duke, and is not afraid to hurt people to achieve his ends, which most of the time line up with the duke's needs as well. Hugo's success as Clermont's consigliere mean that he will leave the duke's employ 500 pounds richer, so when the duke tells him that Serena is a disgruntled former employee, and tells Hugo to deal with her, Hugo initially pursues his standard operating procedures, but dreads learning what Serena's actual grievance is with the duke – because knowing as much as he does about Clermont, he knows the duke has likely done something terrible to her. Hugo ultimately finds himself in the position of being tasked to destroy someone he has come to admire – and love.

There are three things I want to say about this novella.

1. It is not as solidly perfect, as contained and structurally sound and powerful as Unlocked, [A | BN | K | S | ARe] which is among my top two novellas that I re-read and recommend (the other being Holiday Sparks [A|BN|K|S|ARe], which is a contemporary). This novella sets up an upcoming trilogy and as a result, it introduces characters at the end. It also features a shortened emotional journey for the main characters, and those two factors combined to leave me as a reader wanting more. As Jane said in her review, I wanted more of everything with the characters, more time to see them and know them better. I felt like I saw an important episode in their lives but I wanted more story – whereas with Unlocked, I felt like I knew those characters deeply (which may have been a function of knowing so much of their past, then their present, and then future in a short story).

2. “Well written” does not begin to describe this story. There is no cruise control or autopilot with Courtney Milan's writing. Everything is there for a reason, and she is never dozing at the wheel. Pay attention and your brain is rewarded with the intellectual equivalent of the best baked goods buffet in the universe. There are no meaningless moments that serve only move us to another big scene. Every scene is important, like those giant complicated Lego construction pieces where each piece builds on another and there's no subbing in some random piece to make do. In her work, each word fits perfectly and every piece is important.

That's how Milan's writing is consistently: every word and scene and sentence is important and when I read her books I know I will be experiencing something better than good, something extraordinary and thoughtful. It is more than competence. It is assurance: this will be quality and it will be intelligent and thoughtful. And you as a reader are in good hands. Milan understands the expectations of the romance reader and the agreement presumed between the reader and the writer when a book is a romance, and meets those expectations easily. Then she adds subtext, meaning and subtlety that makes going back over her writing a pleasure every time.

3. The themes of this novella are beautifully simple, but the way in which they are presented is multifaceted. I don't want to give too much away, but highlight below if you want to read the full paragraph: Serena and Hugo learn that placing the other above themselves elevates them both. Serena is willing to endure censure and outrage because she places her unborn child's life above her own, and her present self above her past, despite being told to do the opposite because she is now “runied.” Hugo learns that his goals are meaningless without Serena, and meeting his goals such as they were in the beginning of the story would no longer satisfy him. Serena becomes more important to Hugo than Hugo himself, and he finds happiness (and forgiveness for the sacrifices others made for him) when he places Serena above himself, and above the duke. Hugo's fortune is tied to the duke's, and what was good for the duke was good for Hugo. Now, what is best for the duke is what is worst for Serena – and thus for Hugo. Breaking those ties and upsetting that balance of dependence would have made Hugo miserable in the beginning of the story, but by the end, it is the only way to find his happiness.

This is also the first time in awhile I've read a novel casting a character from a television show in a role. I saw Mr. Bates from Downtown Abbey (or, perhaps more accurately said, I saw Brendan Coyle) as Hugo, based on his pugnacious determination, strength and the description of his looks.

The way in which the balance of self vs. loved one is explored in the story is different each time I re-read, and I discover new reflections of the theme every time. The ways in which that gesture of placing another person's life and happiness above your own motivated only by the purest of love are reflected in different scenes and moments every time I re-read this novella.

But every time I re-read it, I want more about the character's movement toward one another. For example, I felt the internal conflict of Hugo moving from placing himself and the duke above Serena to placing her above them both is not explored or explained sufficiently: I knew that ultimately he would get there, but when he arrived so quickly I was surprised. But I still go back and reread it, because even with flaws, it's extraordinary.

It'll easily be the best dollar you spend this month, and among the best hours you'll spend reading in a while. It is worth every cent and every minute.

This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Sony | Kobo | All Romance eBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    This was, hands down, one of the best pieces of romantic fiction I’ve read this year.  Courtney Milan is the gold standard.

    I didn’t see Brendan Coyle, although that’s an interesting choice.  I saw someone more like Hugo Weaving or Michael Emerson (Person of Interest).


  2. 2
    Cris says:

    I loved this book!  Of course, like Darlene said, Courtney Milan is the gold standard, she’s never let me down.

    I don’t watch much TV, though, so I’m curious to know what you mean about the TV character in the book.  Can you elaborate?

  3. 3
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    Now that you’ve put the image of Brendan Coyle in my head, I can’t remember whom I originally pictured Hugo as. Every time I watch Downton Abbey, I wonder how I’ve survived this long without a Bates of my very own.

    *le sigh*

  4. 4
    Karenmc says:

    You just made my lunchtime reading decisions for me. Grazie.

  5. 5
    Brunette Librarian says:

    I really liked this novella too. The time she spent on the bench was just wrenching. Love the idea of casting Mr. Bates – perfect! Great review, I loved it!

  6. 6
    Rachel Alley says:

    I swear, she’s on my auto-buy list now. I loved the Turner brothers & the offshoot novella (Unlocked). For me, I’m hoping that Serena & Hugo get fleshed out as we go into the rest of the Sinister trilogy—similar to how the Duke & Duchess showed up in the other Turner books. Just a glimpse, to help maybe finish some of the character story here.

    I’ll second the very deliberate use of details—she’s a fine example of Checkov’s gun.

  7. 7
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    I got so caught up in fantasizing about Bates (my boss thanks you for killing my productivity, Sarah) (yeah, I’m reading SBTB at work. What about it?) that I forgot to mention how much I adored this novella. I’ve been having a pretty rough time lately, and I haven’t had a chance to read for pleasure since Spring Break. When I saw Courtney’s tweets about her new novella, I impulsively bought it and read it that night (the night before a major midterm exam, I might add). It was so worth it, and here’s why:

    I am not a crier. Weeping people make me very uncomfortable; I turn into the stereotypical guy who doesn’t know what to do with his hands when somebody cries on my shoulders (yeah, my reaction is to gender flip and morph into a stock character. What about it?). Nevertheless, I cried when I read this story. I cried ONTO MY KINDLE. I was trying to stifle my sobs so I wouldn’t wake the Viking next to me.

    This story provided exactly the sort of catharsis I needed at the time, and I would never have tried to read it if it had been a full-length novel; I simply don’t have the time. Ultimately, I think The Governess Affair accomplishes something that only the best romances can do: it provided comfort, reassurance, and catharsis without ever slipping into sentimentality.

    For helping me retain my sanity in a really stupid world, I owe Ms. Milan an enormous debt, which I try to repay by recommending her books to pretty much everyone.

  8. 8
    ?? keri ?? says:

    I agree so much with the B+ rating. I read it last weekend and enjoyed it, but there was something that just didn’t work in the way that Hugo fell in love with Serena. I’m not sure if it was too fast or not enough showing of emotions? and then I wasn’t sure what Serena’s sister was doing, except being a thematic symbol. I liked it all, don’t get me wrong, and did appreciate the way Serena’s relationship with her sister added to her characterisation and whatnot, it was just… I don’t know, not quite enough? a little distracting?

    You guys are probably going to throw rotten vegetables at me for this, but I half-wished by the end of the book that Hugo and Serena hadn’t fallen in love, but agreed to be together because it was better than being separate, and then a second volume would go into detail how their affection for each other and recognition that they are better because of the other then turns to a full-blown love.

    But but but! This is mostly my analytical impression after reading the novella – I was totally into it and enjoying it while reading, and Courtney Milan most definitely has writing skill, and I did like how it ended up and everything, just felt that maybe something else would be even better. So B+ rating from me, also.

  9. 9
    henofthewoods says:

    My only problem with the novella is that the books in the series are not available yet. I tried even though I suspected they weren’t out.

  10. 10
    Jenny Lyn says:

    “Serena and Hugo learn that placing the other above themselves elevates them both.”

    When this comes across to me as a reader, it’s magic. Isn’t that the best kind of love? When the person you choose to be with makes you as a person better?

    I’m mostly a contemporary-reading girl but I will be getting this one. It’s hard to go wrong with Ms. Milan. I read Unlocked and loved it.

    And I REALLY need to check out Downtown Abbey! I hear soooo much about it online.

  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:

    Egads, the link didn’t work. I was talking about Brendan Coyle from Downton Abbey. Here, have a clip of an interview with him talking about why Irish folks are so handsome:

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    HA! That’s why I whited it out. I know some readers HATE having casting decisions mentioned as it colors their experience reading the book. I’m sorry!

  13. 13
    DreadPirateRachel says:

    No apologies necessary. Brendan Coyle is the perfect person to displace all the Jeremy-Renner-arms-induced lust I’ve been experiencing.

  14. 14

    I have succumbed to Courtney Milan fervor. Man, she’s good. As soon as I read this review I had to click buy (damn you, Amazon! You make it too easy!).

  15. 15
    Amitatuq says:

    I had such happy book sigh at the end of this book!  The sigh was only marred by the impatience that came after reading the epilogue.  There was so much emotion in there my heart actually ached for Serena and Hugo.  And even Freddie to a point. 

  16. 16
    JoanneF says:

    Am I the only person who doesn’t get the attraction to Mr. Bates?  I love Downton Abbey, but I find both Bates and Anna uninteresting and people’s reaction to their “romance” mystifying.  The wedding night scene was cringeworthy.  I think he’s one of the unsexiest characters on tv.

  17. 17
    kkw says:

    I love Courtenay Milan’s writing, but I hate novellas.  I know this puts me in a distinct minority.  It’s just I read so quickly… they’re over before they start, if that makes any sense (it doesn’t).  Anyway, I’m always left wanting more, with a novella, and I know that’s supposed to be good showmanship, but it’s also irritating.  I don’t buy her novellas, even though she’s one of the most talented authors out there, because sometimes half a loaf is not better than none.  They seem cruelly abbreviated to me.  The more perfect a novella is (as in Unlocked) the more I resent it.  In my fantasy world, Milan’s working on an epic.  Shhhh.  Go away, reality.

  18. 18
    Lightningrose2002 says:

    Saw the review, downloaded.  Had no idea this was out, thanks!

  19. 19
    Atiba40 says:

    I agree 100% with Sarah’s comments about Milan’s writing. I LOVED this novella. Ready to reread this and all her other books. Fell in love with Hugo! Serena was strong, strong! Yes, it was short. Needed more development. I felt like every word I was reading was precious.

  20. 20
    chantalhab says:

    This novella is amazing, I liked it much better than Unlocked (although I know I’m in the minority there). Courtney Milan has totally made my auto-buy list. I follow her on Twitter and she’s so awesome. I want to meet her and fangirl over her SO MUCH.

  21. 21
    Shanno says:

    I considered this book last night looking for a bath-time read and didn’t buy it because it was a novella.  I like my books like I like my men… long and complex.  But you’ve all changed my mind.  Thanks!

  22. 22
    Ballantyne says:

    Not up to her other books.  More like a sketch.  Would have been better with a lot more detail.  I love Milan but consider Loretta Chase, specifically books like “Lord of Scoundrels”, the gold standard.

  23. 23

    Thanks for this, the kind of review that makes me curious in not just a book but an author as a whole. (Thanks as a reader and a writer, actually.)

  24. 24
    Lauren says:

    I have never read a Courtenay Milan novel, but I am going to load one onto my ereader today. 

  25. 25
    cleo says:

    Chantalhab – glad I’m not the only one who far preferred this to Unlocked. 

  26. 26
    Mandi says:

    “That’s how Milan’s writing is consistently: every word and scene and sentence is important and when I read her books I know I will be experiencing something better than good, something extraordinary and thoughtful. “

    That x1,000 :)

  27. 27
    Amy Raby (Alpha Lyra) says:

    I really enjoyed this novella, and it was great reading a historical that wasn’t about Yet Another Duke.

  28. 28
    snarkhunter says:

    I’m torn. On the one hand, I can’t stand to read things out of order, and so I won’t be able to read CM’s new trilogy if I don’t read this. On the other hand, I can rarely stand to read books with sexual assault in them, even in the background. Ugh.

  29. 29
    Ness says:

    Yes, to all of that! Except maybe the fangirl-ing thing. I’m not so good at that part. But I loved this more than Unlocked too. Didn’t mind the epilogue either, as it was nice to see who Serena’s son had become. Can’t wait for the others!

  30. 30
    SB Sarah says:

    If it helps, the sexual assault takes place off scene, and she talks about it some, but it’s not repeated over and over. But if that is a trigger of bad feelings for you, it is part of her story and close to the surface of her motivations.

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