The Countess Conspiracy: a Pandora’s Box

Countess ConspiracyToday, Mary and Dabney discuss (and disagree about) Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy.

Mary:

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury has been best friends with Sebastian Malheur since they were small children.  This friendship continued throughout her disastrous marriage and upon the Earl’s death, Sebastian becomes Violet’s rock.  Not only does he help her through an illness that nearly kills her, he becomes her “partner” in Violet’s secret genetic research.  She does the research and Sebastian publicly presents it.  When the book opens, Sebastian’s conscience will no longer allow him to lie about his purported scientific accomplishments.  He tells Violet, “Fuck you!” and quits.  Thus sets the stage for a change in their relationship.

Milan’s latest novel from the Brother’s Sinister collection is not an “in your face” romance novel.  Like the social and political issues confronted in this story, the romance is subtle, serious and complicated and almost overshadowed by the issue of 19th century women in science.  Add in the inflammatory subject of evolution and the whole book is like dry tender waiting for the lit match.  Sebastian provides that match and the rest of the book is consumed with lighting and putting out fires.

Dabney:

It’s interesting you say, “almost overshadowed by the issue of 19th century women in science.” One of the things I adore about much of Ms. Milan’s writing is her brilliant use of science in her romances. In The Countess Conspiracy I loved the science but was underwhelmed by the romance.

Mary:

I understand the dissatisfaction with the romance, but for some reason the subtlety of it appealed to me.  Violet was so closely contained and wired so tight that without her science she would have almost ceased to exist as a human being.  The fact that Sebastian loved her was in and of itself a sort of miracle and I suspect he loved the memory of her as a child more than the woman she had become.  I love romances forged from genuine friendship and it took a great friend to stay with the Violet who had been beaten down and disappointed by life.

Dabney:

Did you think Sebastian was a viable hero? To me, unlike the heroes of my favorite Milan works, he was flawless… and I’m not much for perfect men.

Mary:

I did not think him perfect at all.  The appearance of perfection was all a facade in my opinion.  His relationship with his brother was very complex and fraught with passive aggressive undertones.  Sebastian’s “perfection” was a persona he constructed to gain his brother’s approval.  The happy-go-lucky Sebastian slipped at the very beginning of the book when he viciously lashed out at Violet, and I think a little of his true self came through.  He did not measure up to his brother’s standards and the accolades he was receiving for his scientific work were not his own accomplishments.  I believe he felt like a fraud inside and out and his “perfect” face he showed to the world was a classic case of seeking approval to raise himself in his brother’s esteem.

Dabney:

That’s interesting. I felt he would sacrifice himself for Violet in ways that made him less appealing to me. That combined with his beauty and brilliance made him a bit too flawless for me. That said, I agree with you that he was passive aggressive in his relationship with his brother. Ms. Milan’s heroes, even when they don’t make my heart pound, are always complex and unique.

Mary:

While Sebastian may not be everyone’s idea of a hero, I believe he was a likeable character.  Violet was MUCH less likeable in my opinion.  It took a very long time to reveal her character and I think Courtney Milan almost left it too late.  She was a character very much worthy of respect for her brilliance and dedication both to her work and her family, but her personality was so repressed that it was hard to get to know her early on.

Dabney:

I did find Violet to be a cypher. And, with her scientific brilliance, I was surprised that she couldn’t see a way to be sexually active without incurring pregnancy. Given the nature of the books she read–and passed on to her teenaged niece–I felt as though she would have some sense of birth control. The way she viewed sex–that it would always lead to pain and disaster for her–didn’t quite ring true for me. I get her mistrust of any happiness for herself was deeply rooted in her lack of self-esteem, but I felt, given she’d loved Sebastian forever, she would have realized her physical experience with her husband was endemic to her marriage and not to all relationships. I also would have liked to see more of Sebastian the rake. We were told he’d slept with many women–I did love the way Sebastian knew the exact number–but we never saw any behaviors that illustrated the reasons for his reputation.

Mary:

Good point about preventing pregnancy and I did wonder about that as well, although any birth control in the 19th century would have been very unreliable and her husband would have by necessity remained in the dark.  I also agree with you about her self-esteem and low self-esteem has a way of overshadowing everything else in life.  Here we have the dichotomy of a brilliant scientist encased in the body of a very conventional woman.  Her mother’s strictures would have been deeply embedded in her psyche.  Because of the secrets she kept and the guilt she felt, she may not have thought herself worthy of happiness.  Her need to be the perfect lady is the theme running throughout the novel and a perfect lady submits and presents a husband with an heir.  So perhaps Violet may have engaged in a sort of self-flagellation in not taking more proactive measures to avoid pregnancy.

Dabney:

I wasn’t thinking about birth control with her husband as much as birth control with Sebastian. I think it would have been illegal for her to use birth control in her marriage. However, with Sebastian, that particular consequence wouldn’t have existed.

I also would have liked to know about bit more about Sebastian and his own desires vis-a-vis children. He clearly loves his nephew and, at some point in the future, will be his guardian. But I did wonder if he was fine with never having any children of his own.

Mary:

Oh I definitely agree with you there.  That was the one issue about the book that I did not like at all.  I would have liked to see at least some discussion about adoption or a discussion of Sebastian’s wants and needs.  So much of Sebastian is consumed within Violet’s needs that his needs kind of get lost.  He may have been fine raising his nephew instead of his own children, but we do not know that because the issue never really gets raised.

Dabney:

Ms. Milan’s heroes are often men I adore. Sebastian is perhaps my least favorite. He exists almost only in relationship to others, and, more importantly, only via what he can do for others. I’d have cared for him more had he been less supplicative.

Mary:

This was Sebastian’s big flaw for me as a hero.  Not his perfect personality, but that he would suppress his own for Violet’s sake.  However, I do believe that readers sometimes inject their own hopes and dreams for the hero/heroine and I was left with the feeling that Sebastian and Violet would eventually grow within the framework of their fragile relationship.  Despite his flaws, I did like Sebastian.  He shook up Violet’s narrow world at the beginning and forced her to take a good long look at her life – her relationship with her sister and the hold her mother had over her life.  Without that I do not believe Violet would have ever changed.  My emotions for her ranged from exasperation to pity to grudging respect.

Dabney:

Ms. Milan writes intelligent and sensual love scenes but, in The Countess Conspiracy, I wasn’t feeling them. In a way, there was too little selfishness on the parts of Violet and Sebastian when they became physical. It seems that they were doing things for each other and somehow that created a lack of urgency and passion.

Mary:

Do you think that your expectations from previous Milan books influenced your opinion of Sebastian?  If this had been the first book you read by Milan, do you think your take on Sebastian would have been different?  I love an alpha male and they are typically my favorite heroes.  However, I did like that Sebastian was just an all-around good guy.  They do exist and I liked that a good guy gets his day in the sun.

What about the secondary characters?  Violet’s sister was very superficial and selfish, as was Sebastian’s brother.  The mother was kind of in the background until the end (but what an end THAT was!).  Did you think the impact they had on the main characters was realistic?

Dabney:

I saw the sister and the brother as being clueless and hidebound by social expectations more than selfish. Lily–eleven children! –served as Violet’s relational life until Violet could let in Sebastian. Sebastian’s brother was the father Sebastian never had and as such had a great deal of influence on Sebastian. The mom plotline was odd and too disjointed for me to make much sense of her big reveal.

Mary:

I liked the mom and her reveal and thought it showed very clearly that perceptions can be wrong.  The mother did what she did throughout the lives of her children to protect them.  Her intentions were good.  She ultimately was pretty selfless (which gives us another selfless character).  We may disagree on the strength of the romance and the appeal of the characters, but I think both of us agree that the science was the strength of this book.  Immediately after I read the book, I went searching on the Internet for female geneticists.  I would give this book a solid B+ and am inching toward an A- for an overall grade.

Dabney:

Let’s just talk for a moment about the science. Unlike other Ms. Milan books where the science itself is really interesting, in this book, it was society’s reaction to the science that important. And, given that Violet is not the scientist who did indeed discover the chromosome–that would be Walther Flemming–her doing so in this book was a let down for me.

Mary:

But, there were scientists in Violet’s image such as Julia Bell who linked heredity to color blindness and hemophilia.  Nettie Stevens linked sex to the 23rd chromosome (and credit was given to a man).  Rosalind Franklin had her discoveries concerning DNA stolen by a man.  All of these women were born in the 19th century.  Flemming worked independently and unknowing of Mendel’s work, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Violet could have come to the same conclusion as Flemming, so I did not have a problem with that.  Darwin’s scientific discoveries were groundbreaking, but it was the public’s reaction to Darwin that was the main story of his life.  He is still vilified by many today mainly for religious reasons.   Violet being a woman would have been even more scandalous and there is no way to write a realistic portrayal of a 19th century female geneticist without going into the public perception.

Dabney:

I agree! I’m just saying I found Violet’s discovery overly specific.

For me, I’d say this book is a solid B. It’s not my favorite by Ms. Milan, but, hey, an imperfect book by Ms. Milan still rocks.

Mary:

Well there you have it.  Dabney thinks the hero could have been more compelling and Mary liked the book well enough to think about giving it DIK status.  Therefore the Pandora’s Box grade would probably average out to a B+. This is a solid book by Courtney Milan and both of the reviewers would recommend it to AAR readers.

9 Responses to “The Countess Conspiracy: a Pandora’s Box”

  1. willaful says:

    Great discussion! I confess to some relief to seeing criticism of this book, because I’ve truly felt alone on this one! I did enjoy it, would also give it a B, but it seemed very *studied* to me, very much head and not enough heart.

  2. Lynda X says:

    What birth control would have been available to Violet that she could have discovered and actually obtained? I THINK condoms existed, but how could a woman have gotten them? Where were they sold? I know that in romance books that women are instructed, usually by the hero, to use a sponge, soaked in vinegar, but really, how many people knew about that and how effective was that, really? Maybe some prostitutes knew about it, but I sincerely doubt the average person, even a scientist, did. And a woman trying to find out information, especially if she’s not married, I can’t imagine HOW she could have found out. When Margaret Sanger tried to educate the public (which, if I remember correctly) was after 1900, she was arrested for promulgating porn.

    • I have interview on Monday with Caroline Linden where she discusses Regency era birth control.

      Violet could have found out about sheaths, which is what Sebastian ends up using. Birth control methods have always been around although they weren’t as you point out, routinely effective.

      • Ros says:

        I guess the thing for me was that it wasn’t just about birth control for Violet. The act of sex itself had become associated with violation, rape and trauma. So she has to learn to understand how to enjoy even the simplest touches of a man again, let alone penetrative sex – regardless of whether she knows she’s protected from pregnancy.

  3. LeeF says:

    Well, I love the exchange of opinions on this and it makes me want to read it (or listen to it) even more. Thanks for taking the time to discuss it.

  4. literki says:

    Great article. I am facing some of these issues as well..

  5. Ros says:

    It is amazing to me how differently people can read the same book. I was shocked to find that Dabney didn’t like the plotline with Violet’s mother because for me, that was almost the most heart-wrenching part of the book. I sobbed at the reveal (okay, maybe I have issues with my own mother).

    And on the point about Violet and Sebastian’s future family, I thought Milan handled that with great subtlety. By the end of the book it’s clear that they will have a family – Violet’s niece and Sebastian’s nephew. And I liked the idea of them becoming an open family, a safe haven for other young people who don’t fit into society’s norms.

    • I agree it was handled with subtlety but for me it was a bit too subtle. I’d have liked a conversation between Sebastian and Violet in which they discussed the future they envisioned for themselves.