The Counterfeit Countess
by Cheryl Bolen, historical (2005)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7789-0

Tori Amos has a song that I feel describes perfectly my feelings about the work of Cheryl Bolen so far. In Tear In Your Hand, there's a line that goes "I tell you there are pieces of me you've never seen - maybe she's just pieces of me you've never seen." Another line, "You don't know the power that you have with that tear in your hand", will describe my reaction to this author just as perfectly if I substitute "tear" with, um, "keyboard". I would say "pen" but pens are so 1980s.

Anyway, that's just my roundabout way of saying that from what I've read by Ms Bolen, I do like what I read very much. Her stories can be formulaic, but there are always hints that there is an author with unusual and interesting ideas waiting from break free from the well-mannered author obedient to the martriachy of the Formula. The Counterfeit Countess is an actually very textbook example of this author's often inadvertent stumblings into brilliance when she even more often misses than hits the bullseye. If this book has more focus and consistency, The Counterfeit Countess will be a most enjoyable read.

Maggie Peabody believes that the no-good man she married was the Earl of Warwick. When Edward died, Maggie packs up and brings her sister Rebecca along with an elderly maid and the family cat and with the last of her money, move to London from Virginia where hopefully she would use some of Edward's money to start a new life. Alas, when she reaches London, she meets the real Earl of Warwick and learns from him that her late husband was actually Lawrence Henshaw, a nobody who had once worked with the real Edward in Foreign Office. Lawrence fled to America when he was implicated as a spy. Poor Maggie realizes that she truly is stuck in England with no money and no alternatives.

Being one of the million nobleman spies overrunning Regency England, Edward is told by his superior to keep an eye out for Maggie. Since she was married to Lawrence, there is no telling that she may be up to no good, after all. Meanwhile, Maggie is more than happy to agree with Edward's hambrained scheme where they will pretend that she was married to the previous Earl briefly. Maggie, with Edward's help, will try to get a rich husband ASAP.

Maggie is an interesting heroine at first. She's the kind of heroine that many readers will be happy to accuse as being "dishonest" and "immoral" because Maggie's greatest talent is to cry on cue and hence manipulate men into feeling sorry for her and doing what she wants them to do. Personally, I believe that a woman should do what she believes is best for her when it comes to dragging her and her family out of dire straits, so good for Maggie, really, for using what she has to solve her problems instead of crying and playing the passive martyr! Unfortunately, as the story progresses, the author becomes increasingly obvious in her rather heavy-handed attempts to make Maggie likable. By "likable", I do mean "turning Maggie into another overly-visceral idiotic hambrained nitwit holding the flag of martyrhood aloft".

Edward is a lost cause from the get go. Perhaps the spy subplot is necessary to get the charade going but Edward comes off as one of the dumbest spies I've ever encountered. His masterplans are often ridiculously convoluted (exhibit A: the entire premise of this story) when a simple Q&A with Maggie could have cleared matters considerably and his attempts at spying will make even Inspector Gadget wince in embarrassment. And let's not start with his (lack of) brainpower abilities. My favorite is when he brings Maggie, whom he's sleeping with, under the roof of Fiona, the woman he is engaged to, and then goes "Uh...?" when the party doesn't turn out to be as merry as he'd have liked.

Still, while the plot won't be making seismic waves when it comes to being logical, Maggie and Edward have enough convincing chemistry to make the story work. Hence my saying that Ms Bolen could have been so, so good if she knows her power: she's adept at creating simultaneously humorous and heartfelt romantic scenes. If she ever gets the plotting done right, she'd be very hard to be pooh-poohed at. But instead of capitalizing on Maggie and Edward, her greatest strength, Ms Bolen packs the story with filler scenes involving Maggie's nauseous "sweet" cat Tubby. While Fiona and Rebecca eventually become well-rounded characters in their own right, there are too many moments in the story when secondary characters end up taking up precious space that could have gone to the main characters without adding anything to the story in their own right.

In The Counterfeit Countess, Ms Bolen seems to have misplaced her priorities, with her putting more emphasis on crowd-pleasing superficial plot gimmicks rather than in fleshing out the romance of her lead characters. This book is a missed opportunity at the end of the day. Maybe next time, Ms Bolen?

Rating: 70

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