The Countess Lends A Hand is the sequel to the great The Countess Takes A Lover. In it, we meet Cecile, Madame La Comtesse’s lady’s maid, and Sir Nathaniel, a knighted war hero. Cecile sees a shadowy form of Nate from a distance at one of Meredith’s dinner parties and her heart finds a mate in his apparent loneliness. Cecile too feels the despair of unwanted solitude and is determined that they find an end to their pain in each other’s company.
The differences in their station would have made this impossible if not for Meredith’s assistance and her willingness to bend the truth in order to get Cecile what she wants – an affair. They set Cecile up as a widowed friend on a visit from the Continent, and invite Nate to a small house gathering. Meredith sets one condition: Cecile is not to fall in love. Of course, Cecile is half in love with Nate already, so we know that warning will go unheeded.
The plan is a success and Cecile finds a companionship in Nate beyond their sexual liaison. They share many interests and truly like each other but while Nate believes he has found a delightful partner in a gentlewoman, Cecile is dreading the day when she has to return to life as Meredith’s lady’s maid, out of sight and out of mind.
The romance between Cecile and Nate is the deep but quiet kind that develops for the reader, through the characters' thoughts more than their actions. Both of them are quite introspective so you learn much of their feelings in prose, not dialogue. This makes for a slow-paced romance - which I had no problems with, caught up as I was in their relationship - but I did recognize it as slower-paced than the average.
Nate is the nice, upstanding, sensitive type. Saddled with a profligate elder brother, he is left to manage their estate and its tenants while Ronald does his best to leach the land of its profits so he can be well entertained. Nate is also pretty much an open book. Cecile manages to draw all his secrets out of him, as well as give him ease due to their sudden but strong companionship. Cecile's lies prevent reciprocal honesty. As the novel goes on, the lie seems protracted, as if it only continued on so that the two of them could have a war of words (Nate betrayed, Cecile pleading) and provide the novel’s climax. Thankfully, and true to Nate’s character, they were not made to suffer long.
I liked The Countess Lends A Hand, but there were no surprises and some disappointments. As usual, Bonnie Dee’s writing was superb, but my main disappointment was that she channeled too much of that good writing into characters who had already had their time to shine. The continued romance of Meredith and her lover Christopher took up half of this already short novel, and they took it up so well that they overshadowed the main characters. It almost would have worked better if Dee had cleaved this book in half and dedicated the full length to each couple. Instead, she did Cecile and Nate a disservice; they have starring roles with also-ran lines.
That said, what we do get of both couples is top-class romance so in the round, this book gets a very solid B grade.
-- Abi Bishop
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