by Carla Kelly, historical (2009)
Harlequin Historical, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-373-29549-4
The Surgeon's Lady touches on a subject matter that I just simply cannot resist. Sorry, folks, but since I was a little girl, I had always been fascinated by the story of Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer, and other courageous men and women who helped made a difference in the field of modern medicine. This book contains scenes of doctors and their assistants rushing to do what they can for the injured in the war against Napoleon, non-romanticized scenes that can make the faint-of-heart feel rather squeamish, but me, I'm in heaven. Give me a hero as beautiful a person as Philemon Brittle and I'm really having the time of my life.
I may have to eat my words about Carla Kelly creating better heroes than heroines here, because this story has a significant chunk being narrated from heroine Laura Taunton's point of view, and Laura ends up holding her own against the wonderful Philemon very well all the way to the last page.
Oh yes, the story. Laura, our widowed heroine, had been contacted by her half-sister Nana (the heroine of Marrying The Captain) and when this story opens, she finally finds the courage to visit Nana. Laura, you see, doesn't like changes in her life too much, and it takes some effort for her to even read Nana's letter. Laura arrives at her decision shortly after her husband's passing - it's one of those things Laura feels that she has to do in her attempts to take stock of her life. Widowed after spending a long time caring for her ill husband, a man she didn't particularly care for in the first place, she blames her own inability to defy her father for her being trapped in that marriage in the first place. Now that she is free to do whatever she wants for the first time in her life, Laura doesn't know what she should do. Perhaps visiting the half-sister whose identity she didn't know until recently will be a good way to start in her path to self-discovery.
At Nana's place, she decides to stay awhile as Nana's husband is away at sea and Nana is expecting. She also meets a friend of Nana and her husband Oliver - Dr Philemon Brittle who recently left his Jamaican outpost to become a staff surgeon at Stonehouse, the local Royal Naval Hospital. When Oliver suffers an injury, Laura finds herself not only staying longer than she expected in Plymouth, a chance visit to Stonehouse sees her ending up playing the Florence Nightingale to the injured in Stonehouse.
The Surgeon's Lady starts out slow, with Laura's constant gushing over the apparently perfect love of Nana and Oliver wearing out its welcome very quickly. I have read the previous book, after all, so I know Oliver and Nana are right for each other. Why turn them into Carebears here and make my skin crawl in the process? Then again, I'm not fond of overly sweet scenes and the first quarter or so of this book is full of such scenes.
But once Philemon and Laura both get working, both on exploring their feelings for each other and on working together to create some very compelling early 19th-century style ER drama, the story really takes off. How can I resist a romance with scenes as adorable as this one?
"You're wearing a new apron. One that fits," he said.
"It does," she agreed. "Captain Brackett told me yesterday that all the lads will feign illness to stay longer on my wards. I told him he was cheeky and he laughed. I don't think he has done that in a while."
"I doubt he has." Go ahead, he told himself, flirt a little. "You're a tonic for all of us."
My, that was tame, he thought, disgusted with himself. Even my flirting is medical. I speak of tonic when I want to tell her like a schoolboy that I worship the ward she walks on. There I go again; I am hopeless.
I have some reservations about Laura and Philemon because the author has come up with very similar hero and heroine in her last two books. A little variation to the noble everyman theme will be nice because three consecutive books with a similar couple are causing the party to become somewhat monotonous.
Still, in this book, it is impossible for me not to sigh whenever Philemon does something so cute just like in the scene I highlighted above. Like Oliver, Philemon may be more gorgeous than your everyday guy on the street, but he puts his heart and soul into helping his fellow man without expecting any reward. He is, after all, doing what he feels that he does best in. This only makes him a more attractive hero with a bigger heart and an innate nobility that shines through.
As for Laura, perhaps she takes to her newfound vocation a little too well to be believable, but such is Ms Kelly's storytelling skill that I find myself crying with Laura when, after she has put on a strong front when she confronts the horrifying conditions of the badly injured for the first time, she breaks down in delayed reaction when she is finally alone. Like Philemon, Laura gets to work without expecting anything in return. She puts her heart and soul into her newfound vocation, even charming annoying political people to get her way for the Hospital if she has to, and really, she's fabulous. It's easy to see why Philemon will fall so hard for her.
Normally, saintly characters annoy me, but here, these characters may be a little bit too perfect at times but they are so heartbreakingly noble and courageous that my heart breaks for them. The world of these people is so vividly drawn, it's impressive. Ms Kelly in what seems like effortless ease brings to life the chaotic sounds, stench, and sight of this world. This isn't an anti-war or pro-war story, by the way. Ms Kelly respects her readers enough to let them form their own decision about the war. Through the eyes and ears of Philemon and Laura, Ms Kelly instead shows me how sometimes when war brings hell into one's world, it also gives life to inspiring courage in the hearts and souls of the common people who never expected or wanted to be heroes.
The Surgeon's Lady may be a generic title while the cover of this book and the back cover synopsis don't accurately describe the story, but all I have to do is to start reading to realize that this is easily one of the best works I've read from this author.
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