by Carla Kelly, regency (2002)
Signet, $4.99, ISBN 0-451-20695-9
Whoo, Carla Kelly! Is this where I'm supposed to praise the book sky-high? Alas, I must admit that while I recognize the better aspects of this book, at the same time there's nothing like a well-written Regency to make me realize how the subgenre and me don't go together well and all. It's frustrating, because loving this subgenre is the hallmark of a Distinguished Romance Reader. It's like listening to classical music - you aren't there until you can spell correctly the names of at least three dead European composers that aren't Mozart.
Or maybe it's just me, being disappointed that Ms Kelly creates a lovely, sensitive, charming, and adorable hero - bear with me, I cut down on the nice adjectives to describe the hero because I don't want to come off like a hysterical fangirl - Jesse Randall, a poet of a doctor and surgeon during the war in Portugal, only to water him down into a saintly guy with little else. There are probably very few authors who can make me fall in love with the hero on page one alone, but Ms Kelly does it by creating charmingly beta heroes. You know Jesse will do great things to prove his mettle, sort of like a more charismatic Luke Skywalker, so his beginning as a refreshingly normal hero (not perfectly handsome, not indiscriminately slutty, et cetera) makes him come off as a much better man to love and adore.
Elinore Mason or Nell is 18 and all her life she has followed the drums of war. His father is a useless provider (to say the least), and his callous treatment of his family leads Nell to work as a nurse in the medical facility known as Marching Hospital Number Eight. Doc Jesse works there, and he's in love with her. The shy man however doesn't dare to say anything to her.
But when her mother dies and her father offers her to the singularly nasty Major Bones (Carla Kelly losing lots of points here for lack of subtlety), Jesse marries Nell to protect her. All this while, the army is retreating, and when Bones in retaliation abandons this particular troop, Jesse and Nell and their ragtag buddies must do their own Dirty Dozen: We're Coming Home! adventure.
One thing I must say: Ms Kelly writes about war like the best of them. She doesn't take up her broad brush and tar the usual suspects in stereotypical colors. In another novel, the villain will be the treacherous French while Spanish-speaking people are all going si, si, si, we're stupid, si, oh save us glorious Britain! In this book, though, the hell that is war sometimes bring out the best and the worst among people regardless of race and nationality, and I like that. Members of the main cast (not the hero and the heroine, of course) can and do die, again adding to the realism of the story.
And it is also very nice to read about men who really prove why they are heroes. Instead of the author calling some drunkard hero a super spy wartime hero when this lummox would barely survive the battle fields ten seconds into the shootout, she takes time to show the nobility and courage in her story's men and women. Jesse is a selfless healer who takes the Hippocratic oath seriously, for example, and in this case it is a simple man who finds the courage to perform great deeds in the name of selflessness. Now that is what I call a hero.
But in the midst of the action, who has time for love?
Here is where Nell and Jesse suffer. Nell is already close to being a saintly luminous angel character, the ornamental sort where the hero's reaction to her is the only thing that makes her a character in even the most amorphous sense. Nell has no coherent personality in this story other than a vague stout-hearted gal who is very happy to blame herself for things when she should know better and someone who is so selfless and kind. She comes alive only because to Jesse, she makes him feel alive. It's like the Smallville's Lana Lang Syndrome: I only know Nell through what other person see her as. In this case, she's a symbol, more like an icon of warmth and normalcy in times of war. I can't help wishing that the story has taken a less action-filled path so that the romance will be better fleshed.
But my biggest problem is that these people can be so annoyingly passive that it drives me crazy. Must these people be so bloody noble? They will be the first people to step in the path of a bullet train to save a puppy caught in the tracks, but when it comes to saving themselves (ie "being selfish" in romance novel-speak), gawd! I can vomit blood in frustration sometimes, especially when these two characters go on for the millionth time how the other fellow cannot possibly love him or her, no indeedy, impossible sir, I won't believe you sir, I cannot believe it ma'am. If Nell would scream and rage and smack her useless father instead of biting her lip and keeping it all in, if Jesse will lose his temper for once and rage when they killed his surgeon friend, I will be more amenable to things. But by the last page, the characters have gone beyond Luke Skywalker territory - they're starting their own canonization.
Small things - like how "Nell" becomes "Elinore" abruptly in this story and how this book must be the winner of the Romance Novel With The Highest "Hippocrates" Word Count award - become magnified by my irritation at the way Jesse and Nell become the new Santas Regencia by the last page. There's a case of too much patience, too much understanding, too much love and understanding, and these people are so full of it they can sell buckets of love to Care Bears.
But it's probably just me. After all, most of the Regency novels I read feature characters so unbending, so unyieldingly moral that they do things that are silly or even stupid in my opinion. Nell and Jesse are the better written ones, heck, Jesse is probably one of the best written ones, but I wish these characters display some rage or anger or anything that will prove to me that there is a human being underneath that saintly exterior.
Still, Carla Kelly's The Wedding Journey deserves a thumbs-up for a truly marvelous hero - a healer with a soul of a poet, how can I resist? - and some of the better depictions of wartime drama. But somehow, maybe because it's in the canon of Regency writing, there is a blinding halo around Jesse and especially Nell that seem to evaporate all traces of flaws in them that by the last page, reading this book is like going through the annals of saints and saintesses in history past.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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