by Elizabeth Doyle, historical (2003)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7471-9
Elizabeth Doyle doesn't always get her act together, but when she does, her stories can be very entertaining. Beyond Paradise is an old-school kind of pirate romance in that it has the heroine going through adventures after adventures while being chased by three men besotted with her. What makes this book really stand out is the hilarious sense of farce permeating the story and a heroine that, while young, comes off so real as someone that acts her age and is often intelligent to boot. The men are written as either bumbling goons or charming larger-than-life rakes, and all in all, I can't help thinking that I am reading Elizabeth Doyle's very own version of The Princess Bride: a madcap adventure that is more swashbuckling romantic adventure than a straightforward romance.
I like Sylvie Davant. She is the daughter of a impoverished French nobleman who, under orders of the French king, comes over to Martinique to be a squire to oversee the running of the land under his charge. It is now 1662 and young Sylvie is undergoing a sexual awakening of sorts. After her engagement to Etienne, a man she finds dull, she realizes that Martinique, in her own words, "had become infested with handsome men... It was as though men were dropping from the sky, all of them handsome, well-dressed, and knee-shakingly virile." Like a kid in a candy store, she runs around town looking dreamily at these men and dreaming of love and adventure. Not that she wants to avoid the upcoming nuptials to Etienne. She knows that it is her responsibility to marry into money and besides, money is always good. But she can't help flirting with Jervais Tremblay, that handsome pirate hunter who fits her ideal as a romantic and dashing hero. But all thoughts of Jervais evaporates when she manages to get Jervais to take her to see some incarcerated pirates and she sets her eyes on the pirate Jacques for the first time.
When Jacques uses her as a leverage to escape and drag her to a pirate ship, Sylvie is set to have the adventure she dreams off. But Jervais Tremblay also realizes that he is in love with Sylvie and sets out to save her from those evil, marauding pirates that have kidnapped her. I really laugh when Etienne decides that he loves Sylvie too and sets out in his own ship to look for Sylvie.
This book could have been a standard pirate captive story were not for several things. One, while the author romanticizes Jacques as the dashing pirate hero, she isn't afraid to depict the ruthless and ugly side of piracy, albeit in a mild manner. Sylvie manages to avoid the usual fate that befalls female pirate captives but that's only because the pirates view her as Jacques' property and they will not poach on his turf, so to speak. Sylvie undergoes adventures after adventures, but I like the fact that she doesn't come off as stupid. Reckless, sometimes, yes, spirited, definitely, but stupid, not quite. I especially love that scene where Jacques asks her to put on a humiliated front after he has pretended to have his way with her and she wonders why she should look humiliated when she'd rather be furious.
I already like Sylvie for her pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude towards money and marriage, her healthy relationship with both her parents, and her defiant attitude. Even later in the story when she has to choose between Jacques and Jervais, she doesn't come off as a martyr at all. If she has to choose Jervais in order to save Jacques, she'll... well, let's just say Sylvie isn't the type to lie in bed and weep copiously over the decisions some twisted sense of honor and virtue forces her to take. She breaks the rules and takes actions to fight back against the deal fate hands her. And when she cheers over the fact that the pirates have struck treasure as this means she is rich, I'm absolutely won over by her. After encountering so many tedious, passive martyrs from more successful authors from more reputable houses, martyrs that mistake their cowardice and passive behavior as a greater form of honor and selflessness, I find Sylvie's personality a refreshing and welcome change of pace and mood.
Jacques come off as quite dim at times - it is Jervais Tremblay that steals the show as the dashing pirate hunter whose Madonna/Whore complex can really go out of control. He isn't in love with Sylvie as much as he loves the idea of Sylvie as a wholesome and unattainable pure foil to the women he usually consorts with. Jervais isn't the nicest man around, but his larger-than-life presence definitely overshadows Jacques' more mundane Pirate With A Heart Of Gold persona. Jervais fits the bill as a villain who also at the same times comes off as a very attractive antihero. Etienne provides unexpected moments of comedy as the pathetic and despicable unattractive Mommy's boy who makes a career out of seducing women with serious self-esteem issues.
Other secondary characters are familiar but at the same time they aren't stereotypes. Sylvie's mother, for example, longs to return to France and fits the definition of an ambitious matchmaking momma, but Sylvie and she have a healthy relationship because Sylvie understands that her mother is just doing what mothers are supposed to be doing in those days by arranging her daughter's marriages. The affection between mother and daughter is very obvious at the end of the day. The easy-going father isn't some henpecked hubby or absent-minded father caricature and the prettier sister isn't some spoiled airhead wiping her feet on her sister's back. A book with characters that come off as just that - characters - instead of templates or routine sequel-baits is always a pleasure to read.
If I do have one complain, it's that Ms Doyle's writing style can get royally verbose and unnecessarily melodramatic or even purple at times. Still, as the story plunges into stronger farcical elements, I really can't help but to enjoy myself thoroughly.
Jervais saw the sincerity in [Etienne's] eyes, and it troubled him. In fact, it made him break from his menacing gaze and blink rather relectively. It had never occurred to him that Etienne actually had feelings for his bride. "Do you mean to tell me that you love her?"
"I believe I do."
Jervais threw down his arms and spun around. "Oh, this is just wonderful!" he snarled to the sky. "This is just... men, tell me!" he called angrily, "is there anyone on board this ship who is not in love with Sylvie Davant? With how many men must I compete for this woman?"
"I love her a little," said one.
"I thought she was pretty," said another.
"Now that you mention it..." came a voice.
Now that Marsha Canham is currently taking an indefinite hiatus from writing (thank you so much, Signet) and Laura Renken is currently writing under the name Melody Thomas for Avon (and I can just imagine what that house will do to her style), swashbuckling romantic adventure in the romance genre is pretty much dried up. While waiting for Marsha Canham's swan song to come out in July, Elizabeth Doyle's Beyond Paradise may just deliver some thrills - albeit in a farcical manner - to tide the dry spell.
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