I’m currently on vacation and was looking for some light reading to do by the pool. I found the perfect book for that in The Corset Diaries by Katie McAlister. It’s a sweet, interesting romance novel where a group of people join a reality show that takes them back to life in the 19th century titled “A month in the life of a Victorian Duke”.
As the title suggests, the entire book is written in the form of a diary, where we meet Tessa and Max. Tessa studied history and is now working as a genealogical researcher, helping millennials find their roots. This is said in quite a patronizing manner, and being a millennial myself, it bothered me. What’s wrong with young people trying to find their roots? In this world where everything is geared towards the future, what’s so bad about wanting to look back to the past? Marring that, why is a history major looking down on people wanting to find out about their own history? It didn’t really fit the picture McAlister was drawing of her character, but so did much else later on. Anyway, back to the setting. So Tessa gets a call from a stereotypical “gay best friend” who works in television and who offers her the job of a lifetime: working in a Victorian setting for one month, in exchange for $ 10,000. This is when we find out that her roof is leaking, her job doesn’t pay very well (which doesn’t surprise me if she is that patronizing to her clients’ face as well) and she still has student debt. When she realises it’s for a TV show, she starts backtracking, calling herself old (at 39?) and fat (she describes herself as really fat, but as we find out later, she’s more curvy than fat). But she can’t resist the money, so she gets on the plan.
Then we get a load of diary entries of her on the plane, arguing with a hostess to let her jump off the plane or turn it around because she has changed her mind. She keeps going on about her being too fat, the producer who will definitely not like her when she sees her, and about her trying to get the hostess fired because she won’t let her jump out… I found it all a little whiny and her constant “I’m too fat” really started getting on my nerves. Also, she gets all this material to explain the TV show and the concept, and she hardly reads any of it – even though she has several meetings planned for when she arrives. But I guess that’s more of a story ploy to not give away too much in the beginning (and this book is later used again when she starts settling in to her situation). But it kind of bothered me. I mean, she is supposed to be a history buff, specifically crazy about Victorian England – and when she is asked to join a Victorian TV show, she doesn’t even bother to read the materials that explain the project and her role in it (as Duchess, by the way). Again, doesn’t really fit the character.
Anyway, when she arrives, she meets mister gay best friend, goes into a fitting session where they measure her – and oh no, she has to be naked in front of people but she’s so fat blablabla – and keeps telling herself this will never happen. So when she goes out for lunch with gay best friend, she drinks. A lot. Even though she is not used to drinking and gets drunk after 1 drink, she ends up drinking 3 martinis. When she knows very well she’s supposed to meet mister director and her soon-to-be-pretend-husband-the-duke right after. So when she goes into the office, she asks the director to fire her because she’s too fat (this again…) and then when she meets the duke, who is called Max and who she immediately falls in lust with, she throws up on his shoes. Sigh.
Oh, by the way, it’s called the “corset diaries” because she has to wear a corset and she was told by gay best friend to keep her diary, because the show would definitely become a big hit and she could sell those diaries for the big bucks. But then she does write in them complaining about being fat and being very self-deprecating in general, so I don’t think she should sell these diaries… ever!
Anyway, a few diary entries later, she is ready for her first task on screen. In Victorian England, the day always starts with a prayer in the family chapel. She has a big breakfast, and then she gets dressed in her corset and Victorian garb. She is laced in quite tightly and feels like she can barely breathe. She also realises she cannot bend over, she had too much to eat and she’s already sweating. Cue the chapel, where she’s standing next to the Duke (who she just threw up on and who she’s lusting for, remember?) and in walks her in-laws with a dog. A cute dog apparently. So cute in fact, that she immediately forgets all about her corset (though she couldn’t stop complaining about it for pages earlier), bends over to cuddle it and lets out an enormous fart. On camera. In front of not only Max and his family, but also the entire camera crew. Sigh. Two embarrassments in a row for our dear Tessa. Who will this self-confessed “skinny-challenged” woman ever come back from that?
Not very well, it seems. She manages to apologise to Max, who for some reason finds her incredibly sexy. It doesn’t take long for them to start knocking boots after seeing each other naked in their shared bathroom. He is 35, handsome and has a daughter. She insists that she is way too old for him (as if 4 years makes that big of a difference at that age…) and she is way too fat for him to find her really attractive. Also, she has this weird thing about having sex with him, going down on him, but not wanting to kiss with tongues because she finds it too intimate? What? This character really made hardly any sense to me. She is very much the American in the British household and it’s drawn into caricature at a lot of times.
Anyway, let’s jump back to Max. So he is in fact a very distant descendant of the English Duke that he is pretending to be on screen here. He was married when he was very young and had a child with her. But then she abandoned them and is now starting a new family somewhere else. Leaving him with their teenage daughter who is very sullen about it all. Why he decided to do this TV show with his very unwilling daughter in tow, I don’t know (and it’s never explained) but there we have it. Naturally, the girl also really dislikes Tessa and feels suffocated by her very overbearing and overprotective father. Tessa goes against Max’s wishes to teach the girl how to ride horses. Apparently it’s something Max loved to do but when his best friend died after falling off of one, he refuses to let his daughter near them. Cue some arguments between Tessa and Max, while they’re still banging every night, and Tessa and Max’s daughter slowly growing closer.
The show doesn’t just focus on the Duke and Duchess however, it also takes a look at what’s going on “downstairs”. Many people have signed up to be the servants of the ducal home and they are expected to actually perform their duties historically correct. This leads to mutinies, maids threatening to quit, the lead housekeeper seeing ghosts everywhere (it is suggested she only got the job by sleeping with key personnel) and the lead butler being drunk most off the time. Tessa tries to intervene, settle disputes and cheats the Victorian ways to get the people to finish their one month contract. Some money disputes are thrown in when it’s revealed that Tessa makes double what the people downstairs do, and when it turns out the main stable hand is galavanting off with multiple maids and kitchen staff.
It is quite a dramatic reality TV show, both on and off screen, as it turns out. In the end, there is a big show down when Max’s sister and her husband have a big blowout argument and it turns out that the director’s assistant has been trying to sabotage the entire project. But luckily, Max and Tessa make it through, confess their love for one another and decide to spend their lives together in London. The end.
Now comes the question that you will probably think you know the answer to: did I like this book? If you read this review, you’ll probably think not. But that’s not the entire truth. I liked the idea of it. I liked some of the machinations. I like the juxtaposition between 19th century life and modern-day reality TV. But there were so many inconsistencies in Tessa’s character that I really did not like her as a person. I also found it difficult to like Max, as he was not really written in as a person himself. He was only there to fight with Tessa and sleep with her. I guess that can be expected as we are reading the book literally in Tessa’s words, since it’s her diary. But I expected him to be more of a well-rounded character and not just there to riff off of Tessa. I appreciated that they didn’t focus just on them two, but also on the characters “downstairs” but there as well, most characters were not drawn as full people, but only as some characteristics that could move the story along when it comes to Tessa. There were about 30 servants, but we only really learned about 5 of them, the ones who had the most interaction with Tessa. We know most of the other’s names and jobs, but they were thrown in only here and there that I found it difficult to keep up.
Final judgement? I’ll give this 2,5 stars. Great idea, good setting but poorly executed in my opinion. So much more could be done with it, but that was left out. And it’s not just because it was in diary form, because I have other similar books that showed much more rounded characters than here.
Do you agree or disagree? Be sure to let me know in the comments!