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(I was eating a square of dark chocolate while reading The Countess Conspiracy.)
There's milk chocolate, which everyone loves. It's sweet and milky -- a taste that is easy to understand and appreciate. And then there's dark chocolate, it is a chocolate that shouldn't be chewed but allowed to linger in our mouths to melt a bit. But what does "dark" taste like exactly? It isn't sweet but a mix of bitterness and creaminess that doesn't come from cream or milk. It's a complex flavour that challenges the palate.
Courtney Milan's heroine, Violet, is the same way. She knows she isn't like her sister Lily or like any other woman she knows and refers to herself as a puzzle. She talks about herself as a challenge, hoping that no one would dare undertake the task of figuring her out, but Sebastian Malheur is not daunted or intimidated and is more than willing to piece out the puzzle that is Violet. If only she would let him.
Violet only acknowledges the bitter side of herself because this is the side of herself she has known in her many years of marriage. It did not help that her mother, the foremost expert on how ladies should behave (and even wrote the book on it) has trained her daughters rigorously in what she believes is proper, ladylike decorum, so Violet is so hyper-aware of who and what she should be but isn't -- and it destroys her little by little. What Violet has is her passion for plants and her study of it -- but she cannot even claim ownership of it for fear of social censure. It is Sebastian who presents Violet's works and Sebastian who accepts both the admiration and the scorn for Violet's genius.
"You, of all people, should understand. I keep everything hidden because there's nothing about my true self that anyone likes. I'm not difficult, Sebastian. I'm the easiest person around. I don't belong, and I spend all my life pretending I do. Sometimes I get weary of it, and that makes me angry.
...You think it's hard spending time with me? Imagine being a blacksmith puzzle made by a madman. You're unable to perform the basic functions of your existence. You never bring anyone joy. You learn not to hope when someone picks you up. Because no matter how high their anticipation runs upon starting, you know what will happen in the end: They'll throw you away in disgust."
- Chapter 5
How could one person bear such a burden? How could one person lie so well and so long for another, at the expense of one's own self? Because love. Unfortunately, Sebastian's love is not an easy thing for Violet to accept or reciprocate -- and this is part of the mystery that is Violet, Countess of Cambury.
I knew I would love Sebastian the minute I read about him in the earlier books in the series and I wondered what his story was -- I really admire the love that Sebastian feels for Violet and, while reading about it, I was reminded of this poem by Edna St. Vincent-Millay:
Not in the summer casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain --
Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring to you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have! -- And these are all for you."
It is a love with the same purity and intensity and intention -- a love that Sebastian has waited so many years to offer to Violet. What is more impressive is that, even when Violet showed an inclination to refuse what he was offering, Sebastian quietly continued to lay himself bare to the woman he loves. Complicated does not begin to describe Violet and Sebastian's relationship -- and I wonder if there is a single word that exists that would encapsulate that, but it is engrossing to read about how they struggle to make sense of the nebulous feelings that course through them when they are with each other.
"I wish every day." His hand was still clasped in hers. "Every day that passes, Violet. But I watched you during your marriage -- and if you'll pardon me -- I don't think you need another man to get angry with you."
- Chapter 9
Violet is brilliant and talented in a world that doesn't allow her to be. It's actually a world that doesn't really allow for any sort of forward thinking for either man or woman, as can be seen in the reception Sebastian receives when he delivers the lectures. Without witnessing it, Violet knows that it would be catastrophic if the world knew that it was hers.
It also happens to be an ironic life: Violet studies how plants propagate but her own married life was childless. This is another mystery of Violet: she never talks about her marriage or her infertility. So everyone else has written Violet's story for her: her sister Lily, her mother, Sebastian, we readers -- we have all presumed a story about Violet's life -- and she never disputes it.
There's also Sebastian's brother, Benedict and Violet's sister, Lily -- who epitomize what Sebastian and Violet strive for: acceptance, normalcy, belonging. Sebastian struggles to be worthy of Benedict's esteem and it is always like walking on broken glass for Violet when she is with Lily and her perfect husband and her eleven children and her fecundity.
There is so much silence, so much obfuscation in Violet's life -- and this is what makes her story so interesting: with each page, we find a piece of the puzzle, another clue to solving the mystery. It's detective work, which will ultimately lead to the reader unlocking the truth behind Violet.
Piecing the puzzle:
Courtney Milan's writing is so intricate and the pace she set was so deliberate for telling this story. I really felt the impact of her words intellectually and, more importantly, emotionally: there were parts where my heart just hurt so much for Violet and Sebastian. But, there comes a point farther forward in the story, when enough is revealed and we understand the author's plan for her characters ... and we just have to lean back, put our copies down, and marvel at Milan's brilliance.
I've sat on this review for over a week now -- and, in the interim, have read five stories and reviewed three -- but this story lingered with me. I had to write and rewrite my thoughts because, up to this very moment, I am not certain I've pegged down what it is exactly that made this story work -- except to say that it did work for me. That I loved every page and every word that Milan had written ... and that I wish there was more of Sebastian and Violet to read.
This is a love story -- but it is also a love letter to all women: to continue to dream, to do and to dare.
The Countess Conspiracy is the third book (and fifth instalment, counting the novellas) in Courtney Milan's The Brothers Sinister series. To find out more about Courtney, click below: