The Souvenir Countess
by Joanna Novins, historical (2004)
Berkley, $5.99, ISBN 0-425-19387-X


When the French Revolution kicks into action, Alexandre "Alix" de la Brou flees her home with only the ever-handy trusted maid at her side. Her father is killed in the same uprising that caused her to flee, and now she is looking for her mother that has left France earlier. Stupidly pro-daddy heroines, there's a moral lesson in there somewhere. Alix is far from being streetwise, however, and soon she has to be rescued from rape and worse by our English hero Captain Rafe Harcrest. He is in trade, something he is not keen to let his peers find out, so he pretends that his trips to France is for pleasure. Sort of like a reverse case of a businessman telling everyone he goes to Thailand only for business, I guess.

Alix, being a damsel-in-distress, immediately sets Rafe's awareness on fire because there's nothing more stimulatory on a man's senses than a woman that needs him desperately to help her in everything and more. He offers to help her locate her mother. Upon learning that Mom has fled to London, he and Alix board a vessel back to England.

But before they do that, they must pretend to marry. Alix wants an annulment once the marriage farce is done with. And so they go.

Joanna Novins' debut The Souvenir Countess feels like a book written by two different people. If someone has removed the second half of the book altogether, this tale would be readable if very familiar. It's a good form of familiarity here in that Alix isn't too stupid compared to other heroines and Rafe isn't the typical whiny fake rake type. What I'm saying is that while the characters and the way their relationship develops may be something straight out of some generic mould, the characters manage to avoid coming off like a bland form of central casting. There are some interesting sparks and chemistry to make these characters a little engaging, at least.

But once the story shifts to England, that's when the book seems to be written by a completely different person. The plot takes a turn for a more dramatic kind of painful as misunderstandings and other very transparent and awkwardly inserted plot contrivances kick in for the sake of conflict. There is also a villain - a French revolutionary who's actually a greedy and murderous type, the only kind of French revolutionaries in romance novels apparently - that actually follows Alix to London so that he can seize the deeds to her properties instead of just taking all he can to sell at the black markets. But the worst of all has to be Alix, who turns into a really irritating creature that insists on not really marrying Rafe for reasons only romance heroines can come up with. I mean, seriously, only in romance novels, I tell you, that women in danger can still stop and whine about where the love is.

The first half of this book is a readable form of generic while the later half is an excruciating kind of generic. Oh well, generic is still generic from any way I look at it.

Rating: 66


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