Beau Crusoe / Carla Kelly. 2007
You know how it is when you wait ever so long for something that when it finally arrives whatever you've been waiting for simply cannot live up to expectations? I was actually afraid to pick this up and read it after it arrived in the mail a week ago. But 24 hour after it arrived I started in on it and I wasn't disappointed. It was trademark Carla Kelly all the way and full of the things that make her a distinctive writer and one of my top 5 favorites in any of the romance sub-genres. It was in turns funny and poignant. It's a lovely character-driven romance, which seems to me to be rather rare these days.
The hero, James Trevenen was an officer in the Royal Navy who was marooned on a small, deserted island in the south Pacific for 5 years prior to the beginning of the story. He is on his way to London to receive a medal for a paper he wrote upon his return to society about a species of small crabs he spent many hours observing while alone on his island. I loved the way CK got me to think about what it would be like to return home after 5 years in isolation and haunted by the trauma that caused him to be marooned in the first place. James' back story is unveiled slowly and to me it's thoroughly believable. James had gone to sea at age 8 and the idea of him growing up at sea was probably enhanced by my multiple viewings of Master and Commander over the last few years.
In London, James stays with the family of Lord and Lady Watchmere and he becomes acquainted with Susannah Park, their younger, widowed daughter, and her son, Noah. Susannah is assigned the task of acting as hostess to their guest. Susannah lives under a cloud of scandal because her first marriage was to her father's secretary. They'd eloped to Gretna Green and then run away from the scandal by going to India until David Park's death. As an amateur history buff, it's my understanding that what Susannah and her first husband did was a truly scandalous act that had a negative impact on Susannah's family. I find it interesting that many novelists today romanticize a Gretna Green marriage to the extent that most readers probably won't realize that CK is closer to the mark in describing what it really would have been like for Susannah and her family. But I digress. Susannah has an older spinster sister who is bitter over how Susannah's actions had a negative impact on her own chances to marry.
James and Susannah are quickly attracted to one another and sensitive to the respective wounds they each carry. The book progresses as they gently uncover those hurts and deal with them. In addition there are some interesting secondary characters, although the woman from James' past was a bit over the top. Susannah's sister finally sheds her bitter skin, perhaps a tad too quickly, but sometimes things have to move quickly in a story with a fairly condensed timeline.
Was this CK's best book? I don't know. Perhaps Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand will always be a sentimental favorite of mine, but this one ranks right up there, along with The Lady's Companion. It gets an A from me and so far is my favorite book of 2007. Of course, it's early yet. But still, an awesome return for Ms. Kelly and I hope this means there will be more books to come.