The Charm School
by Susan Wiggs, historical (1999)
MIRA, $5.99, ISBN 1-55166-491-7
Oh, glorious, glorious day indeed the day I picked up Susan Wigg's truly wonderful The Charm School! I finished this book with the biggest, silliest grin ever. I actually planned to read this book for half an hour in-between scheduling for my lectures next week. Instead, I ended up reading the whole night, work and the world forgotten, and now I have to spend my weekend in paperwork.
The recommendation from Catherine Coulter on the cover says ...an irresistible blend of The Ugly Duckling and My Fair Lady. While comparisons to My Fair Lady is barely superficial, this is an immaculate retelling of The Ugly Duckling. The ugly duckling is question is Isadora Peabody, an overweight, socially gauche, and too-intelligent woman dying slowly in the social whirl of Boston. She has a one-sided crush on golden, glorious Chad Easterbrook which is made worse by the fact that everyone knows of her crush. Isadora is a sympathetic character, a woman who knows that for some reason she just cannot fit in, and she doesn't know how. Here is a wonderful woman unappreciated by a society that thrives on the superficial facade of beauty and wealth.
When her friend Abel Easterbrook (Chad's father), a shipping magnate, has a ship in need of a translator, Isadora who is fluent in many languages jump on the chance to go aboard. Why not? She has nothing to lose. She needs to get out, and a trip of exotic Brazil may be just what she needs. Accompanied by kind Mrs Lily Calhoun who wants to visit her sister Rose in Brazil, Isadora is ready for the adventure of her life. Unfortunately, Lily's stepson, Ryan Calhoun, the black sheep of his family, isn't too keen on having Isadora aboard.
And oh, how I love Isadora! Free from the fetters of Bostonian society, she soars high. She blossoms, gradually losing her shyness and mousiness as she glories in her daily tasks on board the Silver Swan. Her transformation is gradual and most realistic. And utterly satisfying too. The reader - me - is already given a glimpse of Isadora's dormant inner fire at the beginning of this book. And to see it burn bright... it moves me to tears. It's like seeing my own daughter becoming valedictorian after years of bad grades in high school. Isadora becomes friends with the crew, her natural curiosity and good nature totally infectious to everyone. She never buckles under stress, she blooms in the face of danger. She even helps rescue a crew member during a storm! Between helping overcoming stuttering problems to sharing the crew members' loneliness, all soon find Isadora a wonderful person, a balm to the loneliness at sea. And for once, Isadora is appreciated, she finds herself of use. She is, at last, a person.
And Ryan, sulky Ryan, he just doesn't know what has happened to change this shy, bumbling woman into such a luminous woman. But he knows that Isadora and he have many common grounds. Both are outsiders - she for her plain looks and intelligence, he for getting into trade. Ryan isn't a very noble man, for he has lied and cheated to be where he is now. He knows and oh, he tries so hard to make amends for his past. His sole obsession is to find and buy his former slave and best friend Journey's family to freedom. The journey to Brazil, in fact, is to earn him the revenue required to buy Journey's family from a neighboring plantation. He is a decent man underneath it all, and all in all, a man worthy of Isadora.
And I absolutely love it when the author doesn't make Ryan fall in love with Isadora because she is beautiful. Isadora's never beautiful. She is very plain. But Ryan notices her courage and strength, and her fiery passion and determination. And no, it is not love at first sight. These two wonderful people are friends first. The attraction never blazes bright until the last third of the book. Until then, it is a joy to read of their interaction - from petty bickering to grudging admiration and then, friendship. Ryan knows of Isadora's infatuation with Chad, and he tries so hard not to intrude. And Isadora, she never knows what a wonderful man standing before her until it is almost too late. But there is no childish tantrums or misunderstandings. Just a wonderfully moving story of two friends who gradually find that they mean more to each other than they initially believe. My kind of story. I always believe a couple need to be friends in order to have a lasting, fulfilling relationship. I can say these two will still be bickering and loving until their last breath, and even longer.
The sea plays a large part in bringing these two together, for they both love the sea. Ms Wiggs is clever - she uses all the romantic images the sea can offer and use them to make the relationship between Isadora and Ryan even more romantic. The stars, the quiet night, the gentle rocking of the water against the boat... if you want romantic atmosphere, this book has it in loads. When Ryan talks to Isadora in the silence of the night, I could hear the songs of the sea from those pages, making the whole reading experience even more absorbing and electrifying. I can safely say I feel as if I am in the story, I know these wonderful people. For a few precious hours, Ms Wiggs has transported me into a world where the night is beautiful and the plain, the awkward, and the worthy does win at the end.
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