Book Review: Garden Folly by Candice Hern

Book: A Garden Folly
Author: Candice Hern
Pages: 224
Format: Paperback, Kindle/ebook
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Signet Romance
Book Source: Public Library e-lending System
Category: Regency Romance
Style: easy read, some provocative content

Synopsis from GoodReads:

Two sisters on the edge of poverty have a chance to meet wealthy, titled, unmarried gentlemen when they are unexpectedly invited to a house party at a famous country estate owned by the Duke of Carlisle. Though courted by a wealthy earl, Catherine Forsythe finds herself falling for the handsome estate gardener and faced with the choice of marrying for money and security, or following her heart. more . . . 

My Take:

I am quite ashamed to admit that I was duped, completely and thoroughly, by the innocuous little cover of this book.  The image on the right came up on the library's list of books when I looked up "regency romance" in the search engine.  (Does one call it a card catalog any longer?)  That was probably my first mistake, but whattayagonnado?

Way back in the day (last May) when I actually had to go looking for books to read and review, I hit upon this e-book with the antique illustration cover (the big image at the top is the cover for the paperback), and made the request.  I had to get in line.  It came quickly, but in that time I had accumulated stacks of books to read and so it sat in my Kindle ignored for almost two weeks.  Then, the day before it would disappear from my Kindle forever, I decided to see how far I could get.

Reading A Garden Folly took me four hours, front to back.  The return on my four-hour investment?  A tepid, predictable plot, shallow, mundane characters, improbable situations, absurd presumptions and anything but Regency manners.  The blurb on Amazon classes her with Georgette Heyer.  Umm . . . no.

A Garden Folly focuses on two sisters, Catherine and Susannah, living with an aged impoverished aunt, whose baronet father squandered all his fortune on drink, gambling, and bad investments, until he felt the creditors closing in and blew his brains out.  The girls and their aunt are selling off the aunt's furniture to eat because her clergyman husband gave his fortune to the poor, plunging his widow into poverty herself.

They are looked after by an enigmatic Scot who mysteriously appears shortly after the girls move in with Aunt Hettie, works for nothing as the only servant in the house, and is never, ever explained.  Even so, his resourcefulness and devotion know no bounds, pressing all credulity.

When the aunt conveniently happens upon an old school chum in the park, who also happens to be a duchess, the girlhood friend with obviously democratic  opinions invites them all to her single son's estate for a month-long house party with sixty other of her closest high society friends.  The girls jump at the chance, and their abject poverty doesn't slow them down.

A convenient trunk of their mother's old dresses in the attic provide the cloth (why they would sell furniture but keep dresses to meet expenses remains a mystery), and the Susannah, though scatterbrained, is a whiz with a needle.  Catherine plots and schemes, her great strength.  Together they make a dynamic duo. Good ol' MacDougal comes through with another trunk of not-so-old very fine cast-off dresses from the attic of one of his relations' employers which the sisters set about making unrecognizable.  More or less.  He "borrows" a coach and four from the stables another absent nobleman whose coachman is also related.  He even manages an extensive collection of jewels of still another absent lady, provided, of course, by his ubiquitous relations (none of whom ever fret about losing their places and their characters if caught in this bit of proletariat philanthropy). Catherine's half-hearted objections are easily overcome by MacDougal's assurances the rightful owners will never know.  Seriously?

Cut to the chase.  Short-sighted Susannah, their best hope for landing a wealthy man, bungles Catherine's instructions as usual and falls in love with a penniless one-armed soldier on half-pay.  Catherine knows it's up to her to rescue her family's fortunes and so sets her sites on a likely earl casually hunting for a mother for his orphaned daughters.  The two get along well enough and after a month, both see it as as likely an arrangement as anything.  After all, what's love got to do with it?

In the mean time, Stephen, the eccentric bachelor duke who shuns all society and runs around his estate dressed like a gardener longs to be loved for himself rather than his fortune and status in society.  To the sixty guests, he is off somewhere else, not even in the same county.  Unfortunately, he stumbles over and then falls in love with Catherine who confesses to him (thinking he's the gardener) that she has come to bag a wealthy husband and must wed for money—a lot of money.  Thus, he tells himself he has to despise her, although, of course, he doesn't.

The big problem I have with this book is this:  our perfect, prime-specimen-of-manhood duke treats dear, sweet Catherine like a trollop.  He thinks nothing of spending hours on end with her in the most secluded corners of the estate.  Although she is desperate to "bring the earl up to scratch" (a term I never heard Jane Austen use), she apparently has no thought for her reputation.  No wonder she doesn't.  None of the guests ever see or even think of her, apparently, although she and her sister are the two prettiest girls at the house.  Even though the duke and his buddy the earl spout off about the different ladies on the make at the house party, the competition never think twice about the unknown upstarts Catherine and Susannah claiming all the attention.

Back to the duke.  Once Catherine admits her scheme to Stephen, he sets about making her admit she loves him.  He does this by mauling her, which she allows, of course.  In an age where being alone with a man could destroy a girl's reputation in polite society, and ruin any chance of marriage, he prowls through the shrubbery, stalking her, risking detection by the dreaded guests, all to snag her now and again and kiss her passionately (we get lots and lots of tongue in Ms. Hern's narrative).

This cover has better truth in advertising.
In one scene, he actually drags her into a dark gardener's shed with the entire company picnicking in the area, detection at any moment a real danger.  There "the complete blackness makes it erotic" nearly beyond the control of either.  Ms. Hern has as no qualms in describing the groping and fondling, as neither party have in engaging in it.  Catherine opines now and again about her lack of virtue, but appeases her conscience is as easily as she does over the "borrowed" jewels and other accouterments of wealth.

Catherine half-heartedly tries to run off the pesky "Mr. Archibald", although (since she's in love with him) she gravitates back when he pursues her.  Even so, although she frets about the earl finding out, she still ends up in grope sessions in the dark with the low, common gardener with dirt beneath his nails, infinitely beneath her in social strata.  Ms. Hern also favors the "push through the protest" make-out sessions, "no", of course, always meaning "yes".  Umm . . . no.

Ms. Hern knows the trappings of the Regency era.  Her website is chock full of well-researched and -explained minutiae for the casual reader.  She peppers her prose with the right vocabulary and drops the right names.  She also knows a great deal about horticulture and creates nice feel in the gardens and grounds of the duke's country estate.  Unfortunately, her use of the scientific borders on ostentation and is probably cumbrous to her target audience who probably don't care the Latin genus of a garden variety of flowers.  One trips over the Regency vernacular a bit too much as well.

I have a problem with novels that ignore the social norms of the day.  These girls are so far below the company they are meant to keep, the duchess, no matter how beneficent, would never thrust them into such a situation.  To do so would be patently unkind.  She would only be setting them up for disappointment.  Invite them to tea and garden parties?  Certainly.  To hobnob with the beau monde in the country for a month?  Only as a paid companion or in some other subservient role.

More still, alone, destitute and unprotected as these two girls are, the aunt would be glued to their sides, watching over their reputations with a double-barreled shotgun.  Or, if she weren't, there would be very real consequences.  Susannah and Catherine suffer no such inhibitions.   They go where they want, do what they want, and Ms. Hern allows their happily ever after, when had they truly acted thus, Catherine would have been utterly ruined.  Even the thoughtless, stubborn duke would not have had her despite his or because of his advances.  She would have proven to him she was not the type of woman a man marries.  But, even the duchess, learning of these daily secret assignations over the course of a month, never questions their propriety.

Bottom line:  I surely hope A Garden Folly is not a fair sampling of the Regency Romance genre.  I will not be reading any more of Ms. Hern's works.  Had she honestly packaged her book as she does other works, I would have never checked it out.

FTC disclaimer:  I borrowed this book through the public library system and received no compensation from the author or their agent for this content.

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