When her social conscience and avant-garde art trigger rumors of mental instability, New York heiress Jeanne Delancy flees to Paris to begin her life anew as an independent painter. But the political turmoil of 1871 leaves her with an abandoned child to protect and a tragic mystery to solve. Struggling and desperate, Jeanne is stunned to receive an absurdly lucrative commission from a handsome, aristocratic cavalry officer. The former wallflower has every reason to mistrust the arrogant, yet charming comte de Chaumenay, but she finds the offer difficult to refuse and her new patron even harder to resist.
Consumed with remorse over his past, war hero Olivier Valencourt is certain the beguiling American beauty he discovers in a Montmartre hovel holds the key to his redemption. To convince her to reveal a truth only she can tell, he plots to win her confidence through patronage, patience, and his never-before-tested powers of persuasion. But it doesn’t take long for the bohemian’s unconventional wisdom and innocent sensuality to obliterate his self-control and divert his agenda entirely. While the strong-willed opposites struggle to reconcile their deepest longings, dangerous alliances and scandalous secrets threaten a tragic repetition of history.
Publisher and Release Date: Mouette, January 2014
Time and Setting: 19th Century Paris
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars
Review by Jenny Q
I was drawn to this story first and foremost for the setting. It’s different – Paris – and even better, this is a time in France’s history that I know very little about. And I was intrigued by the characters: a French nobleman soldier and an American artist. That combination had the potential for some serious fireworks and an unconventional love story, and The Count’s Last Mistress did not disappoint!
Our story begins as Olivier Valencourt, recently returned from war, arrives at a rundown Parisian boarding house attempting to fulfill his brother’s dying wish: that he deliver a letter to the latter’s former mistress, Claudine Ardaut. Instead, he finds an intriguing American claiming she’s never heard of Claudine, pretending to be French and pretending to be the mother of a little boy that looks exactly like his brother. While he would like nothing more than to complete his mission and get back to living his life, Olivier owes it to his brother to discover what happened to his lost love and to take care of his nephew; and if he happens to break through the American siren’s defenses in the process to get to know the real woman, so much the better.
But his arrival sends Jeanne Henri into a panic. Her roommate, Claudine, has not been seen in weeks, and Jeanne knows she never would have willingly left her son behind. Rumors of insurrection and a government crackdown abound, and Claudine is a known Commune supporter. But Jeanne can’t tell any of this to the handsome officer looking for her, whom she mistakenly assumes is Claudine’s former lover. Claudine’s heart never recovered from his defection, and she won’t betray Claudine by allowing him into her son’s life. But she can’t go on as she has been, either. Times are tough for a struggling artist, especially for one hiding from an ugly past and attempting to raise her friend’s son as her own. As she embarks on a dangerous mission to finally uncover the truth of Claudine’s disappearance, the time has come for her to admit she needs some help, but can she trust Olivier with the secrets of her life . . . and of her heart? And will they find Claudine before it’s too late?
The first thing that struck me about The Count’s Last Mistress was Bess Greenfield’s writing. It’s very exciting to find a début author with such talent not only for crafting a story but for telling it so beautifully. The second thing was the description; the book practically oozes atmosphere. I was fascinated by this foray into the artistic underworld of Paris. The sights, sounds and scents come to life! From smoky cabarets to grand salons and the rubble leftover from the Commune’s revolution; from artists arguing their craft with glasses of absinthe and cigarettes, to studios with scantily clad models and cafés bursting with life and laughter, it’s a total immersive experience into the underworld of the Parisian art scene.
And finally, the characterization is fantastic. How refreshing to find an independent woman (easy for Jeanne in this case because it’s Paris and she’s American) struggling to get by on her own merits. Jeanne is intelligent, talented, and feisty, and she also has a big heart that tends to hold her back as she takes on the troubles of so many others as her own. She’s a true artist, and it was such fun to read this story through her artistic eyes. Olivier is everything one would expect a French military hero to be. Dashing, handsome, and sophisticated but with a layer of guilt and that sense of having seen too much that war tends to inflict on its survivors. He does act like a right prick at times, but his background and social standing is such that the reader can understand why he acts the way he does in certain instances. I thought he was pretty realistically portrayed, and a very nuanced and dimensional hero. And so very French! He does redeem himself in the end and proves himself to be a worthy companion for our Jeanne. There’s a good cast of supporting characters too, and I’m hoping to see Jeanne’s friend, Sylvie, and Oliver’s sister, Henriette, in future novels.
One thing I did miss and would have liked to have seen was a little more background info on the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune to help me better understand the historical significance and what the Commune revolutionaries were fighting for. For as our story takes place, they have not given up entirely, though they have been driven underground and now fight furtively, setting fires and causing mayhem when they can. It’s an important backdrop to the story, especially given the disappearance of Claudine and her rumored clandestine activities.
But overall, I was thoroughly impressed with this début. The setting, description, characterization, emotional angst, and rich storytelling all add up to one sublimely satisfying read. I couldn’t put it down. The Count’s Last Mistress is a true standout in a sea of Regency and Victorian romances, and I am anxiously awaiting miss Greenfield’s next novel!