Tuesday 31 December 2013

#CBR5 Book 148. "The Countess Conspiracy" by Courtney Milan

Page count: 295 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Sebastian Malheur has been scandalising polite society for years with his scientific lectures on the passing on of genetic traits, to the point where riots are now likely to break out when he presents any new findings. The truth, however, is that the discoveries he presents as his own, are actually those of his best friend, Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury. Violet is as proper and respectable as Sebastian is scandalous and reviled. But now Sebastian refuses to be Violet's decoy any longer.

Violet's marriage was not a happy one, and she sought refuge in her scientific discoveries. The daughter of a woman who wrote the ultimate guide to proper ladies' behaviour, Violet is all that is respectable, decorous and decent. Yet Violet and her sister learned early, after their father committed suicide, that there were unwritten shadow rules as well as the written official rules, and most of them amounted to a lady doing anything in her power to keep scandal from her family's door, using any method at her disposal. If the truth were to come out, that the shocking discoveries that Sebastian has been presenting, were actually all the work of a woman, the scandal would be immense and instantaneous.

Sebastian has loved Violet for nearly half his life, and agreed to put his name on Violet's first scientific paper when it had been rejected several times with her own name on it. As her discoveries, hidden behind his name, continued to amaze the academic society and shock and appal pretty much everyone else, he had no choice but to go along with it. Now his brother is sick with a heart condition, though, and Sebastian is determined to prove himself respectable and responsible enough to be appointed his young nephew's guardian, should something happen to his older brother. He can't be the most reviled academic in England, even for Violet's sake.

Sebastian and Violet have been supporting characters in the other Brothers Sinister books, and it was actually revealed at the end of The Heiress Effect that Violet was the mastermind behind Sebastian's scientific discoveries. Because Oliver, the hero of that book, proved to be such a disappointment, I was terrified that this book was going to let me down in some way as well. Courtney Milan is by far my favourite romance novelist writing at the moment, and my expectations for this book just continued to build as the months wore on, and Milan teasingly posted little teaser snippets on her Facebook page.

The book was not a disappointment, although it turned out to be something completely different from what I was expecting. While the series may be called The Brothers Sinister, with the heroes having been the focus of the two previous books, this book belongs primarily to Violet, who broke my heart. A deeply insecure and unhappy woman, Violet is such a fiercely brilliant but horribly damaged woman. She has never felt good enough, desperately seeking the approval and approbation of her cold mother and needy, selfish sister. While she grew up with Sebastian and his cousin Robert, as a woman, she could never truly belong to their little fellowship either. Despite making absolutely amazing genetic discoveries, she believes herself to be worthless and unlovable, and she distrusts any overtures of affection or friendship. I just wanted to hug her so hard, even if she probably would have hated such a gesture.

Sebastian may be a legendary rake, but his heart has belonged to Violet since before she got married, and he's been her most faithful friend in thick and thin, never revealing his true feelings for her, because he knows how closed off she is. She can barely stand anyone touching her, let alone admitting love for her. Even when he does admit the truth about his feelings towards her, their friendship and her feelings come first, and he does nothing to pressure her, waiting with infinite patience for her to make up her mind about what she wants and feels. Violet may have broken my heart, but Sebastian patched it back up again.

The romance between Violet and Sebastian isn't actually the most important part of this story - the changes Violet has to go through to accept and love herself, and realise that she's a person worthy of friendship and can have a worthwhile relationship with someone, are so much more vital here. The emotional wounds that Violet need Sebastian's help to heal are immense, and upsetting. It's not an easy book to read, but it's oh so satisfying in the end. Milan has admitted that this is the book she's been working towards through the whole series and that made her want to write the books in the first place, and it's inspired in part by several great real life women, whose contributions to science went wholly or partially unrewarded. One of the things I love is how unafraid Milan is to show the less glamorous sides of history in her novel. This book is in my top ten of 2013, just as I hoped it would be.

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