Saturday, 4 December 2010

[007] The Countess - Catherine Coulter

The Countess by Catherine Coulter

What the Back of the Book Has to Say: (and in this case, it's a hell of a lot)

Dear Reader,

The Countess was my very first novel, published in 1978 under the title The Autumn Countess. Even at that amazingly young age, I still realized I should write about something I knew. Since I'd grown up reading Georgette Heyer and my master's degree is in nineteenth-century European history, it wasn't much of a mental stretch--a Regency romance. Well, sort of.

As it turned out, The Autumn Countess danced into the bookstores not as a Regency, but as a Gothic masquerading as a Regency.

I've rewritten the novel extensively to make it even more unabashedly Gothic in form, texture, and content, including use of the first-person narrator in the classic Gothic style.

Andrea Jameson, unlike the conventional Gothic heroine, isn't a destitute governess. She's young, rich, and toothsome, and adores her Dandie Dinmont terrier, George. However, Andrea doesn't have a single dream of meeting Mr. Right, marrying, and living happily ever after. Go figure.

She strikes a bargain with an older widowed earl who promises her all the razzle-dazzle without the obey part. She's perfectly happy with the deal until she meets the earl's nephew and realizes fairly quickly that she might have made an exceptional blunder. 

But she doesn't have much time to ponder her dim-witted choice of husband because someone is trying to kill her. Will she survive to marry the man of her dreams? 

I hope you enjoy the inside cover. The art department had a ball designing what they call their "uptown classic Gothic." 

Do tell me if you enjoyed the rebirth of my Gothic tale.

Catherine Coulter
Write me at PO Box 17, Mill Valley CA 94942

Why I Picked It Up:

It had been a long time since I'd read a romance novel and it looked to be one of the few, if the only, on the shelf.

What I Think:

Romance novels and I have a long and colorful history. It all began when I entered college and quickly became an English major. For a majority of my college life, I also lived with two other English majors, the aforementioned A and another roommate who we will call V. It didn't take long for the three of us to discover that reading very serious literature all the time was rather tiring for the brain and although we loved reading enough to major in it, we did not love it so much as to read heavy things in our free time. And thus, we discovered romance novels, Regency romance novels in particular.

Regency romance novels are beautiful in their formulaic-ness . They all proceed in about the same fashion: young virgin meets slightly older (probably titled) man with a flawed and most likely tragic past, the two fall in love and will have to overcome some sort of evil villain or dangerous plot or just society in general that stands in the way of their happiness which, of course, they will. The woman will probably better her social status and the once nefarious rake will finally settle down, most likely with the birth of their child in the epilogue. You pick up the book knowing there will be a happy ending, after a few adventures and roughly three sex scenes, varying in graphicness. 

To be quite honest, despite trading romance novels around in our suite like a mini-library, when I ended up not living with the two of them my senior year of college, I fell out of the routine of the romance novel. They still have not lost their appeal but without others to laugh at it with and tell that "you have to read this one next," it's just not the same.

Perhaps nostalgia for a sillier time is what prompted me to pick up The Countess. If you gave even a half glance to what the back of the book had to tell me, I think you have a pretty good idea of what was going to happen in the book as well as the quite ridiculous writing style I was going to have to put up with. This book can ramble like nobody's business and enjoys going off on tangents that seem unnecessary (and, well, are). It takes itself very seriously (as it's a "Gothic novel" after all) and that is why I have put it in the 'so bad, it's good' category.

The Countess is like a stupendous B movie. First of all, it thinks it is a Gothic novel which, I can tell you quite plainly, it isn't. Apparently, to be a Gothic novel, you just need a dusty castle and a ghost. Admittedly, The Countess has both of those but those two traits alone do not a classic Gothic make. The whole thing stinks of an author who has read too many romance novels (along with real literature) herself and was very self-satisfied with her own attempt, despite the fact that it really isn't what she thinks it is. Which, I suppose, I should take as a warning should I attempt to write my own some day.

The best thing about this whole, ridiculous novel, however, is that despite the fact that you can tell on the back cover what the entire plot of the novel is, she still throws in more plot twists than you can shake a stick at, just to confuse the hell out of you. If you read the back of the book, you know already that person who is "trying to kill her" has to be the husband she married or else there is no feasible way to pull off the happy ending prescribed of her marrying this nephew of his. It would just not work in romance novel logic, especially as a Regency book. Putting all that aside, though, Coulter has thrown in side-stories about ghosts, some sort of terrible past the heroine has with her father which will coincide with her staying pure (another thing a Regency heroine needs is purity, since one plot point of the story will be her finally sleeping with the true love of her life, in this case the nephew), a brother and sister-in-law who are either sinister or just kind of strange, a society rival (despite the fact that their castle is in the middle of nowhere) and just general danger and mayhem. It's an awful lot for this tiny book to carry and most of the time, it flounders under too much plot.

Despite all this, I still genuinely enjoyed The Countess because it was just all so silly. Coulter's writing style is bizarre, full of out of place language and asides that don't mean anything. The plot doesn't make sense at the best of times and is vaguely offensive at the worst. All in all, though, it is silly, ridiculous fun and a nice relaxing break from the depressing speculative fiction of Never Let Me Go.

After I finished it, I talked to A on Skype and spent two hours recounting the entire plot to her, including as many quotes as I could find flipping through the book. I think I can say with complete honesty that both A and I give The Countess two bemused thumbs up.

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