A Countess by Christmas by Annie Burrows
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I decided to give this four stars because it was an entertaining romance, with characters that I enjoyed reading about. While the conflict is mainly based on misunderstandings of characters and what is said and done, it wasn't too irritating to render the story frustrating or the characters unlikable.
Readers who enjoy a Darcy-like hero, composed, cold, uninvolved and very proper, they will probably like Bridgemere. I enjoy when the hero is forbidding and withdrawn from life, and stiff and we see him thaw out as he is around the heroine and falls in love with her. Bridgmere really liked Helen's authenticity and her caring for others, but at the same time, his experiences with his deceased wife has made him highly wary of love and withdrawn from life, determined not to make bad choices out of emotionalism. As such, there is a see-saw between his being drawn to Helen and his wanting to maintain distance.
As far as drama/conflict, there isn't a lot of external conflict. This story is more about the developing of the relationship between a lonely man and a young woman who was rejected by most of her family except for one lady who adopted her, and as such, she is devoted to the woman and calls her aunt. There is social conflict as Bridgemere is a powerful man surrounded by family who want access to his means and influence, and are playing a game of one upmanship. Helen is continually told she's not good enough for the Earl and couldn't possibly hope for marriage with him, because she's viewed as a threat to the others who see that the Earl likes, respect, and is drawn to her. This is reinforcing Helen's own feelings of unworthiness. Yet at the same time, she does seem to have a healthy sense of self esteem.
I liked that Helen is a spunky and independent person. She reminds me of one of my favorite literary heroines, Jane Eyre, in that regard. Even with the punches she's received in her life, her sense of loneliness and rejection, she won't lay down and die. She'll keep fighting and standing up for herself, and particularly others who need champions.
The holiday atmosphere was lovely, showcasing that the cold Earl really did have a soft, warm heart, especially for children. He makes a point of creating fun and welcoming activities to the overlooked and emotionally neglected children of his relatives. Bridgemere and Helen bond as they engage in these pursuits and they are allowed to see each other as they are, with the rigid social barriers lowered.
This isn't a particularly exciting book, but the writing is good, and the characters and their developing romance engaged me and kept my interest. I kept picking this up when I had a chance and getting drawn into the story, so that I'd read it longer than I should have been due to the need to complete other tasks.
I think readers who enjoy Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte would appreciate this book.
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